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When Jennifer Reynolds was a wide-eyed 20-something working at her first job in finance, the vast majority of executives at her company were male. At some point, Reynolds figured, the gender balance would shift and more women would occupy the C-suite. Maybe she’d make it into the corner office herself.
Fast-forward about 20 years, and not much has changed. Men still hold 86 per cent of executive positions in Canada and 93 per cent of board seats, according to a 2016 global survey by Washington-based think tank the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE). “I thought that when I would reach the age that I am now, there would be a lot of female CEOs,” says Reynolds, President and Chief Executive Officer of Women in Capital Markets (WCM). “But these things just haven’t evolved as you would have expected.”
Reynolds, whose Toronto-based organization advocates for women in the financial services industry, has been trying to change that imbalance in boardrooms and C-suite offices. There’s plenty of work left to do: Canada ranks among the bottom 10 of 91 nations when it comes to gender equality in the boardroom, the PIIE reports. Achieving a 50-50 split will require buy-in from both men and women, Reynolds notes. For their part, executives must transform how they recruit talent and foster employee growth. Fortunately, it can be done, Reynolds says.
Start with targets
One way to boost the number of women on boards and in the C-suite is by setting targets. In 2010, the Australian government launched its Gender Equality Blueprint, which stated that within five years, all publicly traded companies in the country should have boards comprising at least 40 per cent women or risk being delisted from the Australian Securities Exchange.
That target remains a goal, but Australia is making progress. When the recommendation was announced, just 8.3 percent of directors at ASX 200-listed companies were female. That number grew to 18.6 per cent in 2014 to 23.3 per cent as of this March.
Even if they aren’t binding, targets carry weight, Reynolds observes: “A company says, ‘This is what we are striving for aspirationally as a firm,’ and what gets measured is what gets done at the end of the day.”
Create a more flexible workforce
The countries with the highest gender equality are those with strong paternity laws – meaning they have rules that specifically allow men to take time off work to raise children. But Canadian companies shouldn’t wait until the government updates its legislation, argues Reynolds, who says they can create a more flexible work-life environment for both genders now by offering men leave after a baby is born and creating a culture that encourages both sexes to help out at home.
No one should be penalized for taking parental leave, but when women do so it’s usually in the 30-to-35 age range, the time when they also need to focus on climbing the corporate ladder. “The career clock is at odds with the biological clock,” Reynolds says. Because most men skip paternity leave, they’re the ones making the big career moves.
It’s not that men don’t want to take time off, but there’s a stigma around them staying home. If men and women can share the child-rearing duties, women will have a more equal chance at progressing in the workplace. “Flexible work policies make it much easier to continue in a career and not force women to throw their hands up at a certain point,” Reynolds says.
Avoid hiring biases
Most people think they hire based on merit and without any bias, but many studies prove that idea wrong. Executives promote in their own likeness, Reynolds says. That’s understandable, given that we tend to favor people who resemble us and those we’re the most comfortable sitting around the table with. Because male executives are hiring into the C-suite, they choose the candidates most like them: other males.
Reynolds doesn’t blame people for their bias – “It’s there for everyone,” she says – but they need to be aware of it when hiring. Blind interviews that don’t reveal a candidate’s gender could work; Reynolds also suggests thinking hard about company fit. Is fit finding people who all think the same? Or is it finding a diverse group of voices? For Reynolds, it’s the latter. “Fit should be different pieces of the puzzle fitting together, as opposed to everyone looking and thinking the same,” she says.
Another reason why women get overlooked for promotions is that men develop relationships with each other in a way that men and women don’t. An employee might start chatting with a senior executive and find themselves invited to a round of golf, where that conversation continues. The more the two talk, the more likely it is that the executive ends up investing time in the employee. “This doesn’t happen with women,” Reynolds says.
Sponsorship is similar to mentorship in that it involves one person helping another to grow, but it’s more than that – it’s about helping to pave a path to the executive level. When a man’s name is put forward for a promotion, Reynolds has seen situations where the C-suite applauds and several people talk about how great the guy is. When a woman gets the nod, maybe one person champions the choice.
Although sponsorship happens organically in an office, there are programs and networks that can foster it, Reynolds explains. Relationships should be built between executives and talent regardless of gender.
There’s not much women can do themselves to move up the ranks – working harder or “acting like a man” won’t cut it anymore, Reynolds contends. Companies must adapt their culture, give the same feedback to women as to men, and promote women so that future female leaders can have role models.
There’s a long road ahead, but Reynolds is optimistic. Since she took the helm at WCM three years ago, more people are talking about gender equality. Meanwhile, the “comply or explain” regime, which was introduced in 2014 by the Ontario Securities Commission and requires Toronto Stock Exchange-listed companies to disclose policies around female representation on boards and in the executive suite, is a step in the right direction, Reynolds says. “We’re starting to see the right things happen to get the momentum here. What we really need is for everyone to get involved.”