Women’s time has come

  • February 6, 2013

When Ontario Premier-elect Kathleen Wynne is sworn into office next week, half the country’s provincial premiers will be women (in addition to the premier of Nunavut) and they will govern 87 per cent of the population.

That is quite a feat and it comes 50 years after the publication of Betty Friedan’s ground-breaking book The Feminine Mystique, one of the most influential books of the 20th century because it unlocked a movement that women were much more than mothers and wives in suburbia.

It was around this same time that the great Pope John XXIII foreshadowed much of what was to come for women leaders when he wrote: “The part that women are now playing in political life is everywhere evident… Women are gaining an increasing awareness of their natural dignity. Far from being content with a purely passive role or allowing themselves to be regarded as a kind of instrument, they are demanding both in domestic and in public life the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons.”

Many women, in my experience, are natural leaders and when given the chance they prove it time and again. (In my career, I had two memorable bosses; one was a man and one was a woman. Their leadership style was very different but both taught me a great deal. Interestingly, several bosses were far less memorable and men outnumbered women in this regard because they tended to dictate instead of lead.)

Today, having women lead five provinces (including the four biggest, Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta) should surprise no one, except perhaps Archie Bunker. Over the last several decades women have impacted politics at all levels, from local school boards and municipalities to provincial and federal Parliaments.

Does this indicate the so-called “glass ceiling” has been smashed for women in Canada? Not quite.

According to Statistics Canada, 50.4 per cent of Canadians are female and the largest group of women, 40 per cent, identify themselves as Catholic. Forty-eight per cent of the Canadian workforce is now made up of women. With nearly half the workforce women, it would follow that close to half the leaders of this workforce would be women. But they’re not, not by a long shot.

Among the management ranks in Canada, 37 per cent are women, according to StatsCan. That is pretty close to fair representation of women in the workforce. Where we really see the discrepancy is in the upper ranks, the executive offices. These are the positions of leadership for the entire organization — the presidents, chief executives, chief financial officers, chief marketing officers and the like.

And here, women hold precious few jobs. For eight years, executive recruiting firm Rosenzweig & Company has tracked how many women hold these top jobs at the biggest publicly traded companies in Canada. I have worked on this research each year; and the first year women held only 4.6 per cent of these top leadership positions. The latest Rosenzweig Report is to be released soon and the numbers are better than that woeful first year, but still not into the double digits for women leaders.

So, what gives? Why is big business clearly not in sync with today’s society which is comfortable with women’s leadership to run our governments? One friend thinks the answer is easy: not as many women aspire to top corporate jobs as men and women have 50 per cent of the votes so it makes sense women would excel in politics.

I don’t buy it. Even if fewer women aspire to top corporate jobs than men, there is still a rich and deep talent pool of women who do. Maybe half the top jobs will never be held by women but surely a quarter of the leadership jobs should be women, not less than 10 per cent.

And as for half the voters being women and, therefore, electing other women ignores the fact that women don’t vote on gender alone, just as men don’t. We vote for candidates whose views align best with our individual values.

But there is a key aspect about voting which may explain part of the reason why top corporate women executive leaders in Canada are the exception, not the rule: the corporate culture is controlled by men and there is no voting in these organizations for top jobs.

In her day, movie star Mae West had many pieces of advice for women and one of her best was: “Brains are an asset, if you hide them.” Today, Canadian women premiers are proving you no longer need to do that. Male-dominated businesses and institutions would do well to follow suit.

(Brehl is a writer in Port Credit, Ont., and can be reached at bob@ abc2.ca.)


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