Canada's largest cities are falling behind major U.S. centres in the proportion of management jobs held by women – a trend the Toronto Region Board of Trade warns could have negative implications for future growth.
A new board of trade study comparing "human capital" trends for people living in 12 major North American cities shows most of Canada's largest cities – including Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Calgary – rank below all major U.S. centres except Dallas in terms of women in management roles. The only exception is Halifax, which ranks fourth.
Boston tops the survey, with 42.8 per cent of management positions in the city held by women, compared with 39.3 per cent in Toronto and 32.9 per cent in Calgary.
Carol Wilding, chief executive officer of the board of trade, says the numbers matter because cities compete for talent, and equitable societies that offer wider opportunities have an economic advantage.
"Women bring a different set of skills and a different approach from a leadership and management style, and a lot of data ultimately points to a more productive work force," she said.
The city trends are reflected in national data. Women held 38.6 per cent of management occupations in the United States in 2012 compared with 35.6 per cent in Canada.
The management gap is not wide between Canada and the U.S., and may be explained by a longer tradition of employment equity programs in the U.S., where affirmative action legislation was passed in the mid-1960s. It may also be due to the presence in the U.S. of more extremely large corporations.
Alex Johnston, executive director of women's advocacy group Catalyst Canada, said it is possible the U.S. benefits from its global corporations, which have some of the most sophisticated advancement programs for women.
"A few companies that really are making progress are really moving things in a positive direction in the right way," she said.
Betty DeVita, president of MasterCard Canada and the first woman to head the global giant's Canadian division, says there is "scale" in the U.S. with its larger firms and larger cities.
MasterCard has a global women's leadership network, including a network in Canada. Ms. DeVita said one of her key focuses is to find ways to give women more experience in operating roles, which prepares them for top leadership jobs later in their careers. The company also has a policy that ensures hiring slates for new positions are as diverse as possible.
Over her long career in financial services, Ms. DeVita said she has seen a profound shift in how hiring is done, which has helped improve diversity and advancement for women.
"It is moving from a complete lack of awareness on it, to [a situation where] positions just get filled by people the decision-makers are comfortable with, to ensuring there are policies and tracking it," she said.
University of Toronto business professor Beatrix Dart, who heads the Initiative for Women in Business program, says her work trying to help prepare women for executive roles has persuaded her that the greatest barriers no longer come from companies, but from women who are unwilling to sacrifice work-life balance for demanding management positions.
She said there may be a "subtle cultural nuance" between Canada and the U.S. – especially compared to entrepreneurial U.S. cities like Boston, San Francisco and Seattle that top the survey – with many Canadian women more likely to take a slower career pace when they have children.
"My own experience coming from Europe, I find that Canadian society is so much more conservative in their attitudes … In Canada, women still adhere to a more stereotypical role of what it means to be a good mother or a bad mother," Prof. Dart said. "The managerial roles just require more commitment and longer hours and that just doesn't fit with the stereotypical role that a mother should be available more to their children. And that is more prevalent in Canada than potentially it is in the U.S."
But Colleen Johnston says she has not seen evidence of Canada lagging the U.S. in her industry, where women like herself are increasing filling management roles.
Ms. Johnston, chief financial officer of Toronto-Dominion Bank, said 47 per cent of management roles at TD are held by women, which is the result of a concerted push since 2005 to set targets and improve diversity. She joined TD in 2004 as an executive vice-president, and said she feels TD has created an encouraging environment for women.
"I certainly felt the organization was very welcoming for people from any background or gender or any walk of life," she said. "I didn't really feel there were barriers when I joined the bank."
The company has set concrete diversity targets, created internal mentoring and sponsorship programs, and has formed 30 women's leadership chapters across the bank to help with networking. Since 2005, the proportion of women in TD's senior executive roles has climbed from 22 per cent to 35 per cent, she said.
"I really think that kind of progress relates to a true conviction around the business value of diversity and hiring the very best people and making sure you're removing barriers," Ms. Johnston said.
The board of trade study finds Canadian cities overall do better on two other measures for women – income gap compared to men, and labour-force participation rates.
Calgary leads the survey with 68.2 per cent of female residents participating in paid work. Toronto and Vancouver rank fifth and sixth respectively on female work-force participation.
Ms. Wilding, however, said it is still discouraging that women in Toronto earned just 72.7 per cent as much as men in 2010 – a second-place ranking for pay equity, while the leader, Los Angeles, was just at 73.2 per cent.
"I still think that's a pretty dramatic gap in terms of the female-male income ratio, so there's lots of work to be done there," she said. "That wasn't anything that I felt really good about."