The Oscar for Gender Equality Does Not Go to Corporate Canada

The most riveting moment in last Sunday's Academy Award presentations arguably came when Patricia Arquette accepted an Oscar for her supporting role in Boyhood. Her heartfelt plea for wage equality for women struck a chord not only with most women, but also with the many spouses, siblings and offspring who share their lives.

Wage equality, however, is just a part of the problem.

By coincidence, just as the Academy Awards were being handed out, our executive recruitment firm, Rosenzweig & Company, was getting ready to release its 10th annual Report on Women at the Top Levels of Corporate Canada. The findings show that wage equality, while important, is just part of the issue. The reality is that even if women in Canada achieve complete wage equality at every level, there are far too few women in the highest paid corporate executive positions positioned to reap that reward.

Our latest report finds that just 8.5 per cent of these top positions -- what we define as named executive officers at Canada's Top 100 publically- traded corporations -- are held today by women. At one level, this actually represents significant progress, as it is almost double the 4.6 per cent found in the first Rosenzweig study commissioned 10 years ago. Today, there are 45 female named executives leading or helping to lead Canada's 100 biggest companies. There are also eight female CEOs heading Canadian companies, up from seven a year ago.

An optimist might invoke lyrics from the 1980's indie band Parachute Club and declare that "Small Victories Are Big Steps."

A pessimist, on the other hand, would point out that given the current rate of progress, we are still 20 to 30 years away from anything resembling gender parity at the top.

Count me among the optimists. Looking ahead, I believe we will see acceleration in the numbers of women moving into top positions. Indeed, I am convinced we are on the cusp of profound and lasting change in the board room and the executive suite.

This partly will be driven by external factors and events. These include the new "Comply or Explain" regulations from the Ontario Securities Commission ("OSC") that began on January 1, 2015 that ask companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange to report how many women they have on their board of directors and in executive positions.

Another factor is that we now have prominent individuals, including Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, former Four Seasons CEO and current RBC board chair Katie Taylor; Linamar CEO Linda Hasenfratz; and Royal Mail CEO Moya Greene, to name but a few, who are willing and able to mentor and encourage young women to reach for the top. When it comes to leadership, role models matter.

Then there are the demographic factors. The Baby Boom generation of (mostly male) corporate leaders are retiring in record numbers. At the same time, reflecting trends that go back several decades, an increasing number and percentage of individuals with the qualifications to lead enterprises -- those with MBAs, law degrees or other professional designations -- are women. This trend has not been without systemic challenges: for example, there is evidence that female MBA grads often start at a lower level and lower salary than their male counterparts -- but the sheer number and high academic standing often achieved by female graduates seem likely to overwhelm these latent prejudices.

In short, I firmly believe we are at an important tipping point when it comes to gender equality in business at the highest levels. Any company -- or executive recruiting firm, for that matter -- that ignores this new reality risks not only failing to attract the best and the brightest, but will be denying the economy as a whole an opportunity to improve competitiveness and profitability, which lifts the standard of living for us all. The fact that a woman is a CEO or a named executive should ultimately be seen as unremarkable. Or, as Sheryl Sandberg put it in her best-seller "Lean In", a time will come when "there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders." Jay Rosenzweig is founder and managing director of Rosenzweig & Company, a global executive recruiting firm.)