Roadblock to the top: Employment abroad may look good, but don't expect a path to greater wealth

TWENTY-ONE-YEAR-OLD business student Kristina King is ready to take on the corporate world, but she’s discovering the road to the top may not be easy. The Black Point native is finishing her honours thesis at Acadia University looking at why there are so few women on the boards of Canada’s publicly traded companies.

What she’s finding is less than encouraging.

"One woman, when she entered the board probably 15 or 20 years ago, she was the only female on the board at the time and she still is."

Ms. King says women are vastly under-represented at the board level. Often, there are only one or two women on a board. Sometimes there aren’t any.

When looking into why that’s the case, Ms. King says there is no evidence of blatant discrimination. Instead, she says, the problem is often stereotypes. "There is kind of this thought that you have to have certain experiences and . . . a certain CV," says Ms. King.

She says the fact that women often have breaks in their careers for children or other reasons can work against them.

It’s information that doesn’t surprise Deborah Gillis, executive director of Catalyst Canada.

A 2005 study by the advocacy group for women in business showed 9.2 per cent of the board seats of publicly held companies in the Financial Post 500 were held by women, a number than hasn’t changed substantially in years. "Clearly, the glass ceiling has not been broken for women in corporate Canada and women continue to face a series of barriers that make their progression up the corporate ladder more challenging," says Ms. Gillis.

She says the problem is hurting companies financially.

"We’ve conducted research that looks at the impact of women on the bottom line," says Ms. Gillis.

She says the companies with the highest representation of women on their top management teams performed substantially better. She says return on equity was 35.1 per cent higher and total return to shareholders was 34 per cent higher. Ms. King says she, too, found evidence women were a valuable asset to the boards they sat on.

"They’ve found that once they get in there and they prove themselves, just like anyone would have to, they find that they’re asked to do everything." Ms. King says these women find themselves being asked to serve on other committees or boards.

"It’s just this one female that seems to be brought along through all these boards, but the actual females that make it to that level are so sparse." Another study, conducted by the Richard Ivey School of Business, shows women have the most impact on a company when they hit a critical mass. The study showed a board with three or more women is more likely to take diverse perspectives into account, is better at decision-making and has a more open and collaborative dynamic.

Yet, despite the evidence, women are not getting the jobs. The men interviewed in Ms. King’s study represented 13 Canadian corporate boards. Among all those board members, there was only one woman.

Ms. King’s adviser, Acadia Business School’s Kelly Dye, is hoping this research will have an impact on the wider academic community. Ms. Dye says Ms. King’s approach to the project, one using in-depth interviews rather than straight numbers, will give important insight into the issue.

"She’s discovering the dynamics at play," says Ms. Dye. "She looks at lived experiences."

Ms. Dye says information like that will allow the academic world to begin to address the inequities.

Ms. Dye says Ms. King’s research shows the problem is with values and preconceived notions. The so-called Old Boys Club has long been the road to success for men, something women have been excluded from.

Jay Rosenzweig has found it’s about attitude as well. The executive headhunter from Toronto recently completed a survey of women at the top levels of Canadian business.

It can be hard for women to advance "when your boss assumes you can’t take on a big project because you have two kids at home," says Mr. Rosenzweig.

Innovations like flextime and paternity leave have made a big difference for women, but there can be pitfalls.

Ms. Dye says "gains are defiantly being made, but I think that we need to be careful with them.

"It’s really easy for an organization to say we support flextime or maternity leave and paternity leave, but how does that reflect on (employees) when it comes to promotion?"

While she hopes to see more research on the issue, Ms. King will graduate in the spring and leave her thesis behind.

The young accounting student says she was offered jobs with all the major corporations. She has chosen, like many Maritimers, to head to Calgary for her first foray into the corporate world. She’s looking forward to seeing first-hand how the gender balance plays out.

"I think it will be interesting over the life of my career to see if the progression continues."

Ms. King says while her research shows women’s corporate advancement has been slower than expected, she’s not worried for her own career.

"By no means does that leave me in a position where I don’t feel I’ll be able to do as well. I know if I truly want to, and put my mind to it, I do think I could make it to that level."

Megan Venner is a freelance writer living in the Annapolis Valley.