Talent Management
HR Professional
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By Sarah B. Hood


Unleashing the power of women in the workforce


Ontario has its first-ever female premier, and you might guess that the toughest battles for gender equity had already been fought, but women are still underrepresented in senior management positions in Canadian business.

In June 2014, a Vision Critical online survey of 1,005 Canadian adults for American Express (Amex) Canada found that 81 per cent of women and 61 per cent of men believe that “glass ceilings” exist for women in the workplace, while 84 per cent of women (and only 63 per cent of men) believe it takes women longer than men to advance up the corporate ladder.


The perception is accurate: a 2011 report titled Women in Senior Management: Where Are They? prepared by Louise Chenier and Elise Wohlbold for The Conference Board of Canada found that, although 48 per cent of the national workforce was female, women only held about one-third of senior management positions, and that this proportion had changed little since 1987. From 2011 to 2013, Statistics Canada reports that the number of women in management positions actually dropped by 2.3 per cent.


The survey identified perceived barriers for women. The top, identified by over one-third of respondents, was “workplace attitudes towards female leaders,” followed closely by “family obligations.” Relatively fewer people thought that “lack of upward growth opportunities,” “lack of mentorship and role models,” “lack of flexibility” and “training opportunities” presented obstacles to women.


Since 1997, Catalyst, a not-for-profit organization with a mission to expand opportunities for women and business, has been tracking the careers of almost 10,000 high-potential MBA graduates internationally. Catalyst’s High Potential Employees in the Pipeline: Global and Canadian Findings identifies root causes for the gender difference; among these, Canadian high-potential women earned an average of $8,167 less than men in their first job after obtaining their MBA. They were also more likely to start out at a lower level than their male counterparts, and twice as likely to choose a non-corporate employer in their first job.


Clearly, there are gender differences in the workplace and, despite good work that has been done in this field since the 1960s, women are still at a disadvantage. So what approach should Canadian businesses be taking?


“Extensive brain science research has shown that men and women have a tendency to solve problems differently,” said Jennifer Laidlaw, SHRP, of CIBC Gender Diversity and Inclusion. Using both skillsets fully produces stronger results. “Organizations that create a culture of difference thinking are more likely to have more innovation, more productivity, certainly better collaboration and better decision-making. They’re able to reduce risks and costs and create superior financial performance. Certainly, at CIBC we continue to strengthen our commitment to creating gender-balanced leadership teams, because of the real value of men and women working together to create superior performance outcomes.”


Empowering women for success
At Amex Canada, 66 per cent of the workforce is female, and from 2010 to 2014 the proportion of women in senior leadership positions rose from 43 to 52 per cent, says Naomi Titleman, Amex Canada’s vice president of human resources.

 "Organizations that create a culture of difference thinking are more likely to have more innovation, more productivity, certainly better collaboration and better decision-making."

The company employs many different strategies to achieve this level of participation. Twice each year, says Titleman, Amex Canada asks employees what they want in a sounding called Employee Pulse. The insights gained from this survey are analyzed to produce a clear picture of employee needs and wants.


“We have specific diversity and inclusion training and workshops,” said Titleman. “The ones most relevant to women are the workshops in gender intelligence, inclusive leadership and sponsorship – the theory is that in order to progress to more senior levels, you need that sponsor to kind of pound on the table and advocate on your behalf.”

In addition, Amex Canada has active employee networks, such as WIN, the Women’s Interest Network, and Parents @ Amex.


“They’re led by leaders as well as employees. Each network has an executive sponsor at the VP level or higher. Anything they run is entirely based on what the network wants,” said Titleman, who adds that the parents’ group has invited guest speakers ranging from a nutritionist to a police officer.


Other Canadian companies are also working to improve the number of women in leadership positions. Back in 1987, women made up about three-quarters of the RBC workforce, but only one per cent of the executive cadre. Today, the workforce is 64 per cent female, and women make up 37 per cent of the executive population in federally regulated businesses in Canada.


“These [figures] are the result of a long-term organizational commitment to the full inclusion of women across every dimension of our business,” said Per Scott, RBC’s vice president, Human Resources.


“RBC uses a strategic approach that combines focused recruitment strategies, leadership development programs and experiences and inclusive attitudes and behaviours in our talent management practices,” said Scott. For example, the organization aims for 50 per cent representation of women in all leadership development programs.

Furthermore, “the Women in Leadership initiative provides a cohort of 26 executive women key development experiences, active Sponsorship and exposure to advance their careers.”


RBC also has an executive women's peer network, and six regional Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). In 2013, RBC began to target unconscious bias as a factor that may be hindering women’s advancement by helping employees build awareness and develop skills to address their own unconscious biases.


Mentors, sponsors, leaders
Mentorship programs, once considered to be high on the list of desirable strategies for helping women advance, are no longer seen as a cure-all.


“In fact,” said Laidlaw, “Mentorship is not proven to advance women. What is proven to advance women is sponsorship. It’s about having someone who believes in their potential, because studies have shown that men tend to be promoted on their potential and women tend to be promoted based on their performance.”


Laidlaw believes integrated talent management is another key.


“[This means] embedding the principles of gender difference into all of your people and business processes,” she said. “The way in which you assess talent, the way in which you recruit, the way in which you consider promotions or succession, the values of your organization.” Even the language of job postings, she says, can have an impact on the gender balance of hires.


Above all, she says, leadership accountability is paramount.


“The most important part of this is developing inclusive leaders who will ask questions, be curious and make sure that everyone has a voice at the table.” The inclusive leader is ready to challenge assumptions; for example, “the assumption that a woman who has a child at home may not want to be promoted, to work on the weekend, to relocate, to take on an extra project,” said Laidlaw. “In fact, work-life integration is of equal importance to men and women, and it’s even more important to millennials who are coming into the workplace.”


It makes sense to leverage women’s strengths at the highest levels of the organization. As leading Canadian businesses are showing, a common-sense approach can unleash the skills already available in the workforce.

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