Canadian HR Reporter
Dec 19, 2018

Progress around gender equality stalled in Canada: Report

Woman in Window
Benefits to bottom line should provide impetus for change, say experts
By John Dujay

Despite efforts to increase women’s representation in the C-suite and on boards, Canada’s progress has stalled, according to a PwC report, citing the country’s ranking by the Organisation for Economic Co-operative Development (OECD) — 10th out of 33 countries.

“Canada does have a strong work environment for women, but our progress has stalled,” said Jean McClellan, national leader of people and organization practice at PwC Canada in Calgary.

Thirty-five per cent of respondents to a PwC survey listed an employee’s diversity (for example, gender, ethnicity, age and sexual orientation) as a potential barrier to career progression.

And 36 per cent believe that taking advantage of work-life balance or flexibility programs negatively affects people’s career, found Women in Work Index 2018 — based on a global survey of more than 3,500 working women, including about 250 Canadians.

In addition, more than half of these women feel employers could increase gender diversity efforts and pay more attention to gender equality in regard to internal promotions.

To close the gender gap, the report indicates two areas of focus: access to leadership roles for women, and pay inequality between men and women.

Women earn $0.87 for every dollar earned by men, and while Canada’s female labour force participation fares well compared to other countries (74 per cent), more focus on building stronger diversity and inclusion strategy and initiatives is needed to further boost the country’s rank, said PwC.

When employers make diversity and inclusion a top priority, it’s not only the right thing to do but it makes good business sense, according to McClellan.

“There’s mounting evidence to suggest a diverse workforce leads to more innovation and stronger financial results,” she said. “Every step towards achieving greater gender equality will pay off.”

When companies make an effort to promote inclusion in the workforce, there is a 19 per cent increase in innovation revenues and a nine per cent hike in profit margins, found PwC.

One reason may be the tie to innovation.

“More innovative companies often have a competitive advantage,” said McClellan. “Men and women approach and look at problems differently. And when you have that diversity of thought, it creates more opportunity to think about things in innovative and different ways...and allows you to get that competitive advantage in the market.”

The time for talk is over

Often, people make assumptions, according to Michelle Branigan, CEO of Electricity Human Resources Canada (EHRC) in Ottawa.

 ‘There’s not that many women with the right credentials,’ for example, or the experience to sit on the board. ‘Women just don’t want to go into the trades; it’s messy work.’ ‘Women, once they start having children — they don’t want to travel.’ There’s a lot of presumptions that are built into organizations and into those hiring decisions,” she said.

“We really don’t want to be talking about this 30 years from now. In our sector, 75 per cent of the industry is male.”

The time for talk is over, said Branigan, and employers should do more to advance equality.

“There are some challenges from a communications perspective, but there are others who perhaps pay lip service to us and say, ‘Well, we’ve tried. We issued a job posting — we included that we were looking for women, and we didn’t get any applicants. We’ve tried and we’re done,’ this sort of thing.”

“That’s not good enough,” said Branigan. “There’s been too many excuses made for the lack of progress over the last number of decades.”

Gender equity is something that a vast majority of Canadian corporations are focusing on, according to Merril Mascarenhas, managing partner at Arcus Consulting Group in Toronto.

“While CEOs and senior managers and board directors, especially chairs, think that gender equity is important, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of action.”

“Only about two per cent of CEOs have gender equity as a performance measure in their performance-management evaluations,” he said. “That is adequate evidence that the board does not consider it to be a significant influencer of shareholder value because the primary goal of the board is to deliver value to shareholders. And, frankly, if a CEO’s evaluation does not include gender equity as a consideration, I don’t know how these surveys show that organizations have seen significant movement in terms of revenue growth with gender equity.”

Culture shift needed

What is needed is a cultural shift inside a lot of Canadian employers. And that needs to begin at the top.

“It starts with executive sponsorship, where the CEO and the board says it’s important,” said Mascarenhas. “(But) if culture change isn’t designed to be an ongoing drip strategy — where the information is disseminated and communicated in smaller bites — it is unlikely to be a behavioural shift in organizations.”

And the success doesn’t happen overnight, he said.

“It takes 18 months for you, me or anyone else to change a habit. I don’t know how individuals or CEOs and boards expect a cultural shift without an ongoing, concerted effort over a year or two years.”

Change also needs to be calculated to increase its effectiveness, said Branigan. “Leaders need to commit to putting in place policies and practices that are actually going to support movement, and I’m a big believer in measurement.”

“I don’t believe in affirmative action. I think any woman that is getting a job in the industry should get there on her own merits. But what we have to do is to level the playing field because those women aren’t even getting an opportunity at the table for those interviews, whether it’s to enter the industry or to navigate their careers.”

HR inaction

A large part of the blame for the lack of progress is placed on HR, according to Mascarenhas.

“There hasn’t been enough leadership in HR departments to make it important. The most important action would be for the HR lead to understand the importance and look at the best-practice standard with regards to gender equity.”

HR can start the process by better managing recruitment policies and employee evaluations.

“We have some research on some of the strategies around gender equity; the first one is to embed gender-equity variables into performance evaluations, and a recruitment standard,” said Mascarenhas.

“If the HR leads understand the importance of gender equity — and I don’t think they do right now; otherwise, we’d have seen a lot of movement in this area — I think it will cascade downwards and upwards because the CEOs, the HR leads are in meetings with the CEOs. They don’t bring it up; they haven’t brought it up,” he said.

But the appetite for change in HR departments does exist, said McClellan.

“There are a number of organizations that are looking for ways to advance their diversity programs.”

“They either have diversity programs that they’ve already kicked off, or they’re looking to do that, so there is a lot of discussion and dialogue,” she said.

“Where I see the opportunity is being able to connect the diversity programs to their operations and their everyday business goals, so that their diversity and inclusion of programs and initiatives aren’t something that happens off to the side: It’s something that is embedded into their business strategy.”

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