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Comprehensive plan needed to advance women

Despite a decade of sparks, there is still little fire in efforts to promote more women to leadership positions in Canada, two new studies warn.

The vast majority of employers don't have a clear strategy or philosophy for the development of women into leadership roles, according to a survey of managers at 290 Canadian organizations by Mercer Human Capital released Thursday.

Another study, by advocacy group Catalyst Canada, found that women made significant gains in the executive ranks in the past two years, but during that time the overall representation of women among senior officers and top earners barely increased.

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The clear implication is that employers need to move beyond talk and scattered programs to comprehensive efforts to promote equality, career experts warn.

"The real surprise is that this is happening in Canada, which has made diversity in the work force a priority," said Lynn Stoudt, a principal at Mercer Human Capital in Toronto. "We thought that focus would result in more leadership opportunities for women."

Many employers cited various programs they had in place to support work-life balance, to coach female employees and encourage networking, as well as to promote mentoring by senior managers.

But that broad spectrum of programs may be part of the problem, Ms. Stoudt said. "It appears that these efforts are not being made in a comprehensive manner. Many are one-off initiatives and, after they are done, management thinks that the efforts have made a lasting change."

Companies need to look at what they have done well in grooming women for leadership and continue to improve those efforts, she said. As well, they need to do more to identify women who have the capability to move into higher roles, and encourage them to aspire to leadership.

"If you look at organizations that have the highest participation of women in senior positions, you see a consistency of talent management that integrates and looks at all the pieces, not just work-life balance," she added.

Meanwhile, both women and men need to take more responsibility for encouraging advancement of women into senior management, said Christine Silvia, director of research for Catalyst in Toronto.

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Another study by Catalyst in December found that women are less likely to have a sponsor - a mentor who goes beyond giving feedback and advice and uses his or her influence with senior executives to advocate for the person they are mentoring. Without sponsorship, women not only are less likely than men to be appointed to top roles but may also be more reluctant to go for them, the study warned.

"It is important to engage men. Responsibility can't rest on the shoulders of women alone because the vast majority of people in leadership are men," Ms. Silva said. "They need to let other men know that they are supporting diversity efforts. We have learned from studies that men are more motivated to promote diversity and training if they know that other men in leadership are promoting it."

As an incentive, both employers and employees need to keep in mind the financial and competitive advantages of having more women in management, said Deborah Gillis, senior vice-president of Catalyst.

"As organizations refuel and retool, it is in their best interest to ensure that this important segment of the employee base is developed for leadership positions. Failure to do so could mean losing opportunities for competitive advantage."

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About the Author

Wallace Immen is an award-winning staff writer for The Globe and Mail whose stories about workplace trends and career advice, as well as about cruising and travel destinations around the world appear regularly in print and on-line. He has worn many hats in his career with the Globe, including science writer, medical writer and columnist, urban affairs reporter and travel writer. More

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