Women Still On The Wrong Path

Article from the Toronto Star

March 13, 2010

Donna Nebenzahl

Earlier this week, we marked International Women’s Day, celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women around the world.

What has been a snail’s pace record on every level is no less so in Canada, where recent reports show dismal progress for women aspiring to make a mark in the corporate world.

Two new studies from the Catalyst Foundation have indicated that gains remain minimal for women in this country with leadership potential; in every instance they are under-represented despite their qualifications and expertise.

Equality, it seems, is not on the agenda in corporate boardrooms. Findings this week from 2009 Catalyst Census: Financial Post 500 Women Board Directors, showed that women hold 14 per cent of director positions in the FP500, an increase of only one percentage point in two years. The study also showed that nearly 45 per cent of public companies have no female board directors at all.

“In 2010, the argument that companies can’t find women to sit on boards simply doesn’t work,” said Deborah Gillis, Catalyst vice-president, North America. “Catalyst research shows that looking beyond company heads – 21 women currently lead FP500 companies – to the broader corporate officer pool expands by more than 30 times the number of qualified women available for board service.”

This ongoing lack of momentum, despite the studies indicating a strong correlation between women’s representation on boards and better financial performance, might have dire consequences. Gillis believes Canadian companies risk losing qualified women to multinationals now looking for female board members.

But the fractured playing field doesn’t exist only in Canada. Last month, Catalyst reported, as part of a study of thousands of women and men MBAs around the world, that women lag behind men in both job level and salary starting from their first position post-business school – and do not catch up.

The study showed that the common excuses of parenthood and level of aspiration did not explain the results; the findings held when considering women and men without children as well as those who aspired to senior leadership positions.

“The `Give it time,’ reasoning has run its course,” commented Ilene Lang, Catalyst president and CEO. “In a world where women comprise 40 per cent of the global workforce and are earning advanced and professional degrees in record numbers, gender inequity is a waste.”

Lang’s comments prompted another type of study, this one by international executive consultant Lynn Harris.

Founder of Harris, a Montreal-based leadership development consultancy, she had read an article several years ago in which Lang had once again criticized the dearth of women in leadership.

“I couldn’t believe we couldn’t answer the questions, so I started to research it,” Harris said. “As I suspected, it wasn’t that difficult to answer.”

The result is her recently published book Unwritten Rules: What Women Need to Know About Leading in Today’s Organizations.

After years working in the leadership field, Harris had come to realize the argument around women not having the right stuff to make it is a myth, but sexual stereotyping is alive and well.

“Senior leaders are expected to be competitive and assertive, but when a woman behaves that way she’s labelled a bitch. Assertive is aggressive for a woman.”

One unwritten rule is that senior leaders are expected to be available anytime and anywhere, to spend more than 10 hours daily in an office, to be geographically mobile.

“Everyone will recognize that,” she said, but women often don’t want to do that. They’re also expected, like men, to have a linear career path, in which their careers rev up when they’re in their 30s. But often, women need to have career break at that time, to have their children.

There are two ways of handling this, Harris says. “You could look at changing the playing field, at creating organizations and leaders like in Norway, where there are mechanisms in organizations that allow women to have a career break and come back without having their career path shattered.”

Then there’s the other way, in which women must develop “personal influencing skills,” the ability to promote themselves and mentoring, Harris says.

“They have to understand their environment in order to make real choices about their career.”

Finally, Harris examines the tough choices a woman must make in order to be a senior leader.

Once that first choice is made, some secondary ones will follow that may not be so pleasant, she cautions.

“The key message here is to consciously make clear choices, rather than be a victim of your circumstances.”

donnanebenzahl@videotron.ca

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