1. Prove it? You have to be kidding!
If companies really wanted it, there could be many more women in senior roles
By Shirley Knight and Gerry Purcell
The advancement of women has been a focus of corporations for over 25 years, yet the number of
women in top jobs is less now than in 2002. The absence of gender balance and other diversity at senior
levels in Canadian corporations is not a “women’s issue” but rather a competitive disadvantage that
should be a concern for all Canadians – whether they are aware of this imbalance or not.
Canadian companies must remain competitive in a constantly changing global marketplace – this is our
future. Our sustainability and growth will require companies to harness the energies of their entire
talent pool, including women and men of all stripes and this requires Leadership. Research shows that
the most successful companies are the most agile i.e. those able to create both positive value and
opportunity from what others call “uncertainty” or “surprises”. They do this by encouraging and
incorporating multiple and diverse points of view – not by relying on habitual thinking developed in
some other context. Management teams who welcome diversity of thought in times of change create
advantage for their companies. In business this means breaking out of the mold of homogeneous
What has been going on all these years? – Why counting women, of course!
There has been a recent spate of articles about women in business – or more to the point, about women
not in the business of leading business. It is well documented that senior management roles and board
positions continue to go to men across all industries.
Although women comprise 48% of the workforce, they fall off the ladder very quickly. Specifically, only
36.5% of lower level managers are women; less than 18% are top executives; less than 14% on boards
and a mere 6% of North American CEOs. Board positions going to women have increased a rousing .2%
in the last three years. As Catalyst points out, at this rate of change in senior management and board
roles, we will have full parity by the end of this century. How nice for our great, great, great, great
On the one hand, the data clearly proves that, notwithstanding claims to the contrary, women have not
progressed in the last while. So there is no need to waste our time on circular and useless arguments
about “even playing fields” and “equal opportunities for women”. On the other hand, however, this
trend is very disturbing and reflects an almost stereotypic resistance to change. For the last 20 years
corporate leaders and boards have been busy “counting women” and gathering “proof” instead of
opening their senior teams to more diverse input and innovation. If innovation is truly the goal, these
stalling tactics can be easily considered dangerous. In fact, this endless dialogue about the business
value of increasing the participation and advancement of women in our organizations at all levels is itself
a significant barrier to advancement. It is hard to believe that as a society we are not well past the
notion that somehow men are more intelligent and capable than women.
2. Opportunity Lost
In economic terms, this lack of openness and the absence of transparent dialogue would be tagged as a
significant opportunity cost. By focusing on the “way we have always run this company” boards and
executives reinforce mediocrity and leave significant performance potential on the table because, as it
happens, diversity is a money maker. The profitability of companies with gender-balanced senior teams
outperforms their industry average by over 34%, according to McKinsey. Catalyst has uncovered similar
findings, as have many others.
In knowledge-based companies (versus industrial manufacturing) cultures with collaborative and
inclusive leadership styles have been credited with consistent superior performance and innovation.
That women excel at this leadership style is well-documented and undisputed. Further, at present there
are more women than men graduating from university, and thus the talent pool of competent women is
richer than ever and the pool of talent potentially excluded is also larger than ever.
So what’s the problem?
To be really honest, we thought we were done with this issue. Like most of our friends and colleagues,
we were blissfully unaware that women remained blocked in achieving senior roles. In 1995, a Canadian
Bank ran a program for gender awareness in the Investment and Corporate Banking Groups. While they
strove for gender-balanced workshops, they ran out of senior women after the first two so had to
improvise pretty quickly because there were still over 100 senior managers/VPs left to engage! It is
really hard to believe, but true, that almost 20 years later hardly anything has changed.
As with any complex, systemic problem, the contributing factors are many and varied. Does lack of
opportunity for women in senior roles stem from an underlying and unspoken corporate bias,
particularly at the executive and board level? Yes. Is it because women opt out? Yes. Is it because
promotional practices blatantly favour men? Yes. Is it because women don’t ask for what they want and
expect less? Yes. Is it because no one is accountable for change at the senior level? Yes – all of the
above** and a bit more. It is also about cultural change and transparency that is not only time
consuming but also requires strong leadership and tenacity.
** These statements are each supported by independent and documented research
For leaders, board members and executives who want to uncover more opportunity, be more profitable
and secure the best talent available to sustain the company’s future, cracking this cultural log-jam can
bring significant advantage. As with any such achievements, this one will take focus, will and capability –
corporately and individually- but as companies who have met this challenge know, the end result is well
worth the effort.
The critical success factor for this change is Leadership and even more to the point, Leadership of
“Being” rather than “Doing”. This is Leadership that does not relegate cultural change to the HR
department or pursue inconsequential tactics to buy time but rather enacts the change it wants to see.
3. Success will come from “being” the leader that both values and leverages diversity of thought to meet
the challenges of a dynamic marketplace. In short, a role model for the future.
Five Critical Principles
To overcome history and create the groundwork for a more productive future, there are five principles
for a concerned leader to follow:
1. Change starts with you but understand that to impact the culture and create lasting change,
there must also be learning and change at all three levels: organizational, team and individual
2. Don’t let culture eat your strategy: Uncover embedded and unspoken organizational biases –
what are the perceptions, fears and aspirations within the current culture? Where is the most
resistance and why? What are you going to do about them?
3. Be transparent, it is your most powerful tool: Be clear and open about what you want; make
promotional processes and developmental opportunities fully transparent. What does it take to
get on the Senior Team? Or the High Potential List? What is the criteria for someone to be
eligible for a promotion and why? How can I be selected for developmental opportunities?
4. “Be” rather than “Do: Hold the senior team accountable for more than tactics. All management
teams will ultimately be impacted, however, creating a culture that seeks and values diversity
starts - not ends - with the most senior team. Set goals and raise expectations; this is the board’s
5. Enable and strengthen women and make them aware of the challenge: The reality is that
under the current culture the playing field is not level, thus women need more confidence and
capability than do men for the same achievements. Conferences, networks and mentors are
clearly ineffective. Instead, help women be systematic and deliberate about activating their
potential and overcoming the subtle, unspoken blocks they encounter as they seek or take on
more senior roles.
As Einstein said, the definition of insanity is “doing the same things over and over again and expecting
different results”. After 25 years of trying and not doing, it really is time for boards and leaders to
change their approach to this ongoing dilemma of stability versus innovation. Yes, we need stability in
our companies and institutions but in the face of massive global change, this overused strength can
easily become our greatest weakness.
The ultimate winners will be the countries and companies who tap into all of the talent, innovation and
ideas available to them. Let us position ourselves to be one of them.
4. Shirley Knight is an independent consultant with more than 30 years' experience in banking and insurance and
specializing in strategic planning, leadership and organizational development. Before becoming a consultant, she
was a Senior Vice President of Strategy and Organizational Development at an Ontario-based private insurance
company. In addition to a senior role in Executive and Leadership Development at a Canadian bank, Shirley's
business experience also includes sales and management in retail banking, account and relationship management
in corporate banking, and an executive change management role in investment banking. Shirley holds an Executive
MBA from Queens University in Ontario.
Gerry Purcell is a dynamic consultant, leader and visionary who has managed and advised organizations in the
private, public and not-for-profit sectors all over the world for over 20 years. He increases the "value" of client
organizations by assisting them to better conceive, manage and operationalize change. A global practitioner and
alumnus of the Boston Consulting Group and A.T. Kearney, Gerry has worked in North and South America, Europe,
Asia and the Middle East as both a consultant and business executive.
About the Team: Shirley and Gerry crossed paths a number of years ago and discovered a shared passion for
sustaining Canada’s global advantage through innovation, of which the advancement of women is a subset. Their
team represents a unique dynamic and brings perspective to the issue that is both thought-provoking and
refreshing. Their work involves helping leaders and organizations to develop insight and tangible actions that can
optimize the organization’s embedded intellectual capital to create competitive advantage.