Women in top positions on the decline Number in highest-paid jobs fell in a year

As much as women may hammer against the glass ceiling, the number of them in top executive positions has fallen in Canada over the past year, a study finds.

Just 31 women hold the highest-paid executive jobs in the 100 largest publicly traded companies. That's down from 37 last year, according to the study by executive search firm Rosenzweig & Co.

Among the 535 most senior and highest paid positions at these companies, just 5.8 per cent are held by women. Last year, they held 6.9 per cent. As well, only a quarter - 26 per cent - of the companies have at least one woman in an executive officer's position, down from 30 per cent last year.

"This drop is disheartening and it indicates that Canada's corporate structure is still inherently unfriendly toward promoting women," says Jay Rosenzweig, managing partner at Toronto-based Rosenzweig.

"The irony of this is that study after study shows that, when corporations tap into the huge talent pool of women for top positions, financial performance improves and shareholders benefit."

Of the six positions that declined, two were eliminated because of corporate restructuring after mergers, two of the companies that were included last year are no longer in the top 100 and the other two were retirements of women who were replaced by men.

Why is there so little progress in promoting women?

Pamela Jeffery, president of the Women's Executive Network, says the group has found its members face four challenges getting to leadership that men don't face:

Prejudice: Men are still promoted more quickly than women with equivalent qualifications, Ms. Jeffery says.

Resistance: "Traditionally, women's leadership has been seen negatively as abrasive and pushy. Those same traits when displayed by male managers are often seen as positives."

Leadership style: "Female leaders are more likely to struggle to reconcile their traits of compassion and empathy with the male-oriented assertion and control that is seen as necessary in management."

Family demands: "The critical time to move into management roles is the late thirties, and that is the time when many women decide it is time to have children. The very time when they should be competing and getting ready to move up, they have to take a time out," she says.

However, there is cause for optimism: More women are reaching positions from which they can aim for the corner office, says Deborah Gillis, vice-president for Canada at Catalyst Inc., a New York-based research and advisory group for women in business and the professions.

In a survey of all the FP 500 companies in Canada last April, Catalyst found that 15.1 per cent of corporate officers were held by females, up from 14.4 per cent two years earlier. Many of these will be candidates for promotion to the C-suite in the future.

What would it take to have more women climb the ladder more quickly?

Ms. Gillis says Catalyst recommends employers put formal mentoring programs in place, establish women's networks and examine how recruitment and talent management processes are organized.

"It is important to provide opportunities to let women take on management functions early in their careers so they develop broad expertise in the organization that will set them up for advancement.

"The latest numbers shouldn't cloud the view of the possibilities in the future," Ms. Jeffery adds.

"The fact is there are women who have reached the C-suite, and that will give women increased confidence to aim high."