100 Executives: Guess how many are women

The old boys' network appears to be alive and well in corporate Canada, as less than 5% of the highest-paid executives at the country's largest companies are women, new research suggests.

A survey by Rosenzweig & Co., an executive-search firm, found that the 497 top-paid executives at the country's 100 largest companies by revenue, only 23 – or 4.6% – are women.

"Not being part of the long-term networks that the men have traditionally been part of is a big factor for women," said Jay Rosenzweig, managing partner at Rosenzweig & Co. "The old boys" Rolodex doesn't rule, but it's still in use."

But while the old boys may still be calling each other to fill in some corner-office spots, some women say there's another explanation behind Rosenzweig & Co.'s findings.

Barbara Stymiest, chief operating officer of Royal Bank of Canada and former CEO of TSX Group Inc., said she believes the results regarding the hiring of women could be "very different" if the sample was broader and included, for example, the rest of Canada's public companies

"I would say that there has never been a time in my career – I graduated in 1978 – where I have been handicapped because I'm a woman or denied an opportunity because I'm a woman," Ms. Stymiest, widely regarded as one of the most powerful women Canadian business, said in an interview yesterday. "I think that observers need to be careful that the not assuming that the obstacles exist as a way of rationalizing the current state."

She also said that about 25% of Royal Bank's executives are women, in line with enrollment figures for women at Canada's major business schools.

Ms. Stymiest comments matches the Rotman School of Management enrollment of women, at 25% in the full-time MBA program. As well, 36% of those enrolled in the executive MBA program there are women.

In the end Ms. Stymiest said, discrimination is simply counterintuitive.

"It doesn't make sense. It's completely inconsistent with delivering growth and shareholder value to promote anybody but the best."

Some women have chosen to leave careers behind in favor parenthood, said April Taggart, Bank of Montreal's senior vice-president of talent management and diversity. This would in part account for the underrepresentation of women in top corporate jobs.

Still, Ms. Taggart acknowledges women faced challenges when she started at the bank in the late 1970s.

"I think it was for sure a sort of normal human tendency to hire in your own likeness," she said of the hiring practices at the time. "So men in positions of hiring power often were more comfortable with men."

But since the early 1990's, the bank has worked on modernizing its hiring practices. Today, 35.2% of its executives are women, including Karen Maidment, it's CFO, Rosenzweig & Co, acknowledged this in its survey.

However, the studies findings didn't surprise Jennifer Berdahl, an associate professor at the Rotman School of Management, who said companies have not increased their hiring of women into the corner office, despite talk of the end of the 'glass ceiling' in Canada.

"Unfortunately, we don't see too much improvement," Ms Berdahl said. "There's this temptation to think that we're just evolving toward equality, but this but that's not happening. "

Some governments have become actively involved in ensuring women are admitted into positions of corporate power.

Notably, Norway's government has ordered that the companies listed on the country's main stock exchange boost the number of women on their boards to at least 40% in the next two years. The government has threatened to shut down the companies that do not comply.

Regulators require the companies disclose the pay of the chief executive, the chief financial officer and the other three most highly compensated executives. That was the data Rosenzweig & Co. used for its survey, though only base salary and bonus were examined in terms of compensation. Equity and pension benefits were not included in the study. As well, executives working on a contractual basis or those not designated as officers of a company were not included.