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Good intentions alone won't help women rise to the top

The slow climb to the top

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When Jim Leech took the helm as president and CEO of the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan in 2007, he inherited an executive team that, except for one member, looked largely like him – male. The gender balance now tilts the other way, with five female members out of nine on the executive team, including the chairwoman of the board.

"I think that it is a classic mistake to hire in your own image," Mr. Leech says. "The stereotype of 'CEO equals male' doesn't resonate with me. I've been de-conditioned," he jokes light-heartedly.

To explain Teachers' success at promoting female talent, Mr. Leech references its in-house mentoring program for new hires – both male and female – and a highly engaged women's networking group, which has become a de rigueur fixture in the corporate world.

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While Mr. Leech's views likely affect corporate culture, it's unclear if Teachers qualifies as a success story since it relies on anecdotal evidence rather than data to bolster its case.

Unfortunately for women, the road to upper management roles cannot be paved with good intentions alone. The percentage of women in senior management positions in Canada has remained stagnant for the past 20 years, a recent Conference Board of Canada report showed. Companies need to critically reassess their approach and draw a line between effective programming and corporate window-dressing.

Promoting women is not only a social justice issue, it also affects the bottom line. A 2008 McKinsey study found that companies tend to perform better financially with several senior-level women in place.

Promoting women even bodes well for consumers. Mr. Leech acknowledges that "it doesn't hurt" to have a corporate demographic in line with your customer base.

"In 30 years of gender equality, we are still looking at the business case for this," laments Barbara Annis, of Barbara Annis & Associates in New York, an operation that brings gender experts into major corporations to work on sustainable change. Citing the number of women graduating from universities, she says engaging women is important from a talent perspective.

Ms. Annis, who is also chairwoman of the women's leadership board at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, says many companies still focus their efforts on feeding women into the pipeline and hoping change will naturally occur. But "it can't be just a numbers game," she says.

For many companies, this means moving past loosely organized women's groups and relying on fixed objectives and cold, hard data.

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Beatrix Dart, associate dean at University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, explains that internal programs supporting women are most successful when they have a strong business case behind them, when they have a high-profile sponsor – ideally male – and when there are metrics to back them up.

"Social events are nice but corporations need to take a more qualitative look at their approach," Dr. Dart says. "If you want to have a business impact, you need to define the goals and objectives you want to receive."

The best events are the ones that encourage male participation, she adds. "You want it to become part of the corporate culture. The last thing you want is to ghettoize women."

Many companies offer mentoring and championing programs, but Dr. Dart suggests they should paired with structured learning opportunities, such as job swaps. These programs then need to be benchmarked against other companies to qualify their success.

So what is a well-intentioned company to do? Accountability is key, according to Catalyst Inc., a not-for-profit organization dedicated to expanding opportunities for women and business.

"Just as we would see with any other business strategy, holding business leaders accountable for change is critical and it's something we see very consistently in organizations that have made change happen," says Deborah Gillis, senior vice-president of global operations at Catalyst in Toronto.

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Catalyst hosts a yearly award ceremony to honour organizations around the world that undertake the most effective initiatives to advance women. Listed among their criteria is accountability, business rationale and measurable results.

While no silver bullet exists to ensure that female talent makes the climb to the top, Ms. Gillis warns against blaming women and female attributes or choices as a reason for their lack of progress. "We know from extensive research that you cannot explain away the challenges women face in the corporate world," she says. "It's really not about fixing women, but fixing organizations."

Leah Eichler is a senior editor at Thomson Reuters who writes about women, their careers and success. E-mail:

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Future of Work

Leah Eichler (@LeahEichler) is founder and CEO of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. More

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