A Champion of Women

This is more than a story about numbers. However, the numbers are significant -- impressive, even. And they make a compelling business case for why more women should occupy the executive suite in companies across the land and hold more seats around board-of-director tables.

Catalyst, a non-profit advisory group working toward inclusivity in business, looked at the relationship between women's representation in corporate-officer positions and board-of-director positions in the U.S. Fortune 500 companies. The findings were, well, revelatory.

On average, companies with the highest representation of women in corporate-officer positions financially outperformed those with the lowest representation. In fact, return on equity was 35.1% higher. Total return to shareholders was 34% higher.

The numbers jumped for women serving as directors on Fortune 500 boards. On average, return on equity was 53% higher for those boards with a high representation of women than those with the least women; return on sales was 42% higher; and return on invested capital was 66% higher.

"When you consider these financial implications and the fact women are the single-largest segment of the talent force, at a time when Canadian businesses are fighting a war for talent, women become a critical part of the solution for businesses," says Deborah Gillis, vice-president of Catalyst Canada.

And yet, they are still under-represented in leadership roles. According to the most recent data from Catalyst, at the corporate-officer level in Canada, women held 15.1% of the top jobs in Canada's FP 500 companies and 12% of board seats.

This January, the third-annual Rosenzweig Report on women at the top levels of Corporate Canada found that 31 women now hold top-officer jobs in Canada's 100 largest publicly traded companies; down from 37 last year.

And this is at a time when women represent about 50% of the labour market overall.

For Ms. Gillis, it's a no-brainer. Businesses need to recruit and promote more women. "They have to create an inclusive environment where women can succeed. That means addressing head-on the perceived barriers women identify in the workplace: exclusion from networks; lack of role models and mentoring; gender-based stereotypes."

Thankfully, more Canadian firms see the writing on the wall and are acting to do just that. This month, for the first time, Ernst & Young held a women's leadership conference in Toronto. Some 1,000 men and women from 38 countries came to talk about and learn how to help women advance.

"This is a global priority," says Billie Williamson, Ernst & Young's Americas director of flexibility and gender-equity strategy, as well as a senior partner at Ernst & Young LLP. "We believe we have all the programs, and we've relooked at some of our processes. What this boils down to is the active engagement of all of our people, especially our men, mentoring and being a champion of women."

Lack of mentoring is one of the key barriers to the executive suite. "We believe women don't access the informal networks in the same way as men do," Ms. Williamson says.

The problem goes deeper. "People who enter those C-suite positions are pulled from a fairly small pool," says Fiona Macfarlane, executive sponsor of the firm's Canadian Gender Equity Advisory Group . "It's the people with operational experience who get into those roles."

And few women have that experience. While corporate Canada has solid numbers of women in financial, general counsel or human resources roles -- the fact remains in many cases these positions don't lead to the top job.

In fact, almost 60% of corporate-officer positions were line positions, Ms. Gillis says. Those roles are often the feeding pool for more senior roles. Women hold less than 10% of those key line roles in organizations.

Women have a responsibility to put themselves in those positions, too. "Women have to make sure they take the risk, and get experiences that are out of their comfort zone," Ms. Williamson says.

They also have to speak up about their aspirations, Ms. Macfarlane says. " Women tend to wait for opportunities, seeing it as recognition for good work done. Men ask. You miss out if you wait."

While Ernst & Young has implemented several programs to help level the playing field for both women and visible minorities, the conference highlighted new ideas.

Some countries mandate a percentage of women on boards, Ms. Williamson says. "It would be great to see corporate Canada/America more focused on how many women and visible minorities are on their boards and in their senior leadership." She would also like more companies to look at succession and how they are training women for operating roles. Perhaps more importantly, Ms. Macfarlane says, "Companies have to stop focusing on the likely suspects and cast their net wider when it comes to talent."

--------- TIPS FOR COACHING:

Women aren't being coached to pursue roles that will lead to the executive suite. And there simply aren't enough women in top jobs to take on all the mentoring. "More active engagement of all leaders -- men and women --will make the difference," Billie Williamson of Ernst & Young says. The firm has put together a tip sheet to help men reach out to women. - Keep it honest Think hard about treating men and women the same -- ask yourself if you're unduly worried about hurting feelings or being "politically correct." - Encourage authenticity Coach women to capitalize on what they do best and to talk through the benefits of their strategies for deepening client relationships. Consider ways individuals succeed with clients and consider together the career moves that build on those approaches . - Be a mentor Be someone women can talk with about their long-term view of their careers . Talk about women's ambitions, encourage dreaming big and compare ideas about what steps one can take to reach specific career goals. - Define expectations Share tips on how one hits targets and achieves the metrics that are expected. Identify ways in which expectations can change from manager to senior leader, including any "unwritten rules." - Leverage relationships Encourage women to build relationships with their peers and with those at higher levels so that they develop a broad network. Talk through the strategic questions they may have and encourage women to bring questions to others. - Spend the time Ask women to do things with you: lunch, breakfast and other activities. The more you get to know women on a personal basis, the more at ease you will be doing business with them, bringing their talents into the mix and providing them with insights shared by mentors who were critical to you in your career. - Develop business together Engage women in all aspects of the business-development process. Include them in key meetings and participate with them to help them get to know your contacts . Let others know about the specific talents of women you work with.

Source: Mary Teresa Bitti, Financial Post

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