It's lonely for women who have managed to slip through a crack in the almost impervious glass ceiling.
Of the 500 highest-paid executives in Canada's 100 largest public companies, only 23 are females.
A study of the 2005 executive compensation filings of those companies, with revenues ranging from $2.2 billion to $30 billion a year, found that fewer than two dozen of the 497 CEOs, chief financial officers and other top executives are women. That's 4.6 per cent.
Only two separate and unrelated companies have two women in the top offices and there is only one female CEO among them.
"We've heard a lot of talk over the past decade or so about women breaking through the glass ceiling," said Jay Rosenzweig, managing partner of Toronto executive search firm Rosenzweig & Company which conducted the study.
"But clearly these numbers speak volumes as to how much action -- or inaction -- has occurred in filling the highest executive positions with women.
"There remains great hesitancy to give women the keys to the top 5 executive officer jobs."
Rosenzweig said the study paints a bleak picture.
"The irony is that companies only hurt themselves by ignoring such a huge talent pool of women when promoting to the top."
Paula Holmes-Rodman, chair of the Hamilton Status of Women committee, says the numbers are "quite appalling," but not surprising.
She points out that only 20 per cent of politicians at all levels are female. "Any company or party that doesn't include 50 per cent of the population is shooting itself in the foot."
She said women who take on the primary responsibilities for child-rearing, caring for elderly parents or volunteering can't work the long hours it usually takes to get promoted.
Susan Black, president of Catalyst Canada, says progressive companies realize gender diversity is good business.
"They know it will give them a competitive edge in the war for talent and they give it the same attention, resources and rigorous accountability as their commercial endeavours."
To be successful in getting more women into the executive suites, companies have to undergo wholesale cultural change starting with the top and filtering down, says Black. Then they must set targets for recruitment and promotion and hold people just as accountable for reaching them as revenue and expense numbers.
A Catalyst study last year found that Fortune 500 companies with above-average representation of women outperform those below average by 34 per cent.
This is the first time Canada's top five executives at the top 100 public companies have been scrutinized. But a study last year by Catalyst found that just more than 14 per cent of all executives are women and it will take 20 years to reach even one quarter.
Critics point out that women have been in the workforce in droves for several decades and now make up 46.6 per cent of workers. Yet the pace of change at the uppermost levels has been evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
The thin ranks of women at the leadership level is attracting the attention of some governments. As of Jan. 1, Norway is requiring publicly traded companies to increase the number of women on their boards of directors within two years to at least 40 per cent.
Corporations that don't meet the target can be disbanded.
To compare, only 9 per cent of Canadian board seats are filled by women.
Rosenzweig points to BMO Financial Group as a success story among many failures. Fifteen years ago, the company's workforce was three-quarters female but only 9 per cent of executives were women.
Today, 35 per cent of the highest managers are female and BMO's chief financial officer is Karen Maidment.
The goal is to even out the gender representation at the top, said BMO spokesperson Michael Edmonds.
"It's a strategic focus for us and it's driven from the senior executive levels," he said.
"It's been very important in our ability to recruit the best and the brightest. An inclusive workforce has been a key to our success."
Joan Hutcheson says those who want to see more female leaders in all sectors of society have to push federal candidates on women's issues.
Her group, Zonta Club of Hamilton 2, a branch of an international service organization for women, is issuing a report card for the parties.
"This election will play a role in women getting ahead in business.
"Getting women into higher roles in politics is a good start."
© Hamilton Spectator 2006