Working Women executives are few and far between

Women in the boardroom. We've been pondering their slow climb for the last dozen or more years. They're graduating with MBAs in increasing numbers and working diligently to climb that corporate ladder.

But something is going wrong. Not only have those percentages been increasing at a crawl, the corporate world has reached a new low as far as women executives are concerned. According to a recently released annual survey on Canadian women executives at Canada's top 100 publicly-traded companies, the percentage of women at the highest levels in corporate Canada

- either CEOs, CFOs or the next three highest compensated executives - has managed to dive to 5.8 per cent in 2007. It was at 4.6 per cent three years ago and hit a heady 6.9 per cent in 2006.

Keep in mind that if 5.8 per cent of those in the top level are female - 94.2 per cent are male.

"It came as a surprise to us," said Jay Rosenzweig, a Montrealer who heads his own Toronto-based executive search firm.

First of all, he pointed out, even at 6.9 per cent, "the numbers are staggeringly low."

So what's going on?

Is it true, as some claim, that women don't reach the top because they don't commit themselves to the job? Are they bailing? Are they not capable?

Rosenzweig and company wanted to understand all of this, committed as they are to equality at every level.

First and foremost, he pointed out, increasing the number of female executives is good business.

"Equality isn't just a women's issue. Diversity of viewpoint makes business more creative and more competitive. It really benefits everyone."

But for all the benefits of diverse leadership, not just inside the company, but in terms of profitability, getting women into the executive ranks is a bit like a car on ice, pointed in the right direction but just spinning its wheels.

So to find out more about what was going on Rosenzweig added another component to his data in the form of consultation with the group in the front lines, women executives themselves.

It turns out there's no overt discrimination - we have laws, after all. But what we're left with is even more damaging because it's less obvious, like the boss who feels you can't handle a big account because you have two kids at home.

"That's a subtle stereotype," Rosenzweig said. "No one will tell you that women should stay at home and knit."

But it's not subtle when women continue to be excluded from the formal, old-boys' network. As one woman corporate insider said, "It remains, after all, an old-boys world and old boys choose corporate executives and board members the way they used to choose baseball teams when they were kids."

Senior white males, Rosenzweig pointed out, still use Rolodexes which are chock full of people like them.

So women continue to struggle to reach that pinnacle and there are cases, well reported, where they decide to get off the mountain. That's where we get the chortling about how this or that high-powered woman just "can't hack it." Would that happen were the shoe on the other foot? says Amy Osler, executive director of The Chicago Network, dedicated to promoting women in business and themselves authors of a wide-ranging survey of women in the boardroom with - needless to say - similar conclusions to Rosenzweig.

"If men had major familial responsibility, as some now do, they would have just as hard a time," she said.

And what does someone with major familial responsibility need?

Well, daycare, summer camps, help for elderly family, flex time. You get the picture.

Even at the Bank of Montreal, long touted as one of the places where women are given a more fair piece of the pie, the numbers pale in Rosenzweig's survey. The reason: the type of reporting that the survey requested.

Companies are required to report their top earners below CEO, based on compensation.

According to April Taggart, one of the bank's senior vice-presidents, that criteria ended up "reflecting just a small portion of the senior women in the company." So in a corporation considered one of the most women-focused in the country, there was just one woman to be found.

Still, being able to garner 44-per-cent female representation reporting to the CEO took a lot of dedication from the bank, and therein lies the first clue as to why women are still out of the upper reaches of corporate life.

In order to focus on promoting women, those men in suits who run the corporations need to ponder the A word - awareness.

Somehow, it seems to be lacking.

"Many times I absolutely believe that they just aren't really aware," said U.S. business columnist, personal investment adviser and corporate board member Terry Savage. "They don't expect there to be a lot of women and they don't notice."

To get where they are now, the Bank of Montreal began in 1991 - 17 years ago - to consider the advancement of women, at a time when their percentage of female executives was 9 per cent.

"We discovered false assumptions about women, lack of opportunity and access," Taggart said. "It's something we have to be constantly working at."

Awareness, diligence, a concerted effort to change the landscape of the corporate office. How can this come about? From the top is how.

"There's no doubt in my mind that if the CEO always has meetings with the guys in the golf club locker room, that permeates down the line," Savage said. "If you have a CEO who makes a point of including women beyond the token level, then that attitude goes through the organization."

Changes can only happen, Osler concurs, when "a CEO makes it a priority by giving the support necessary to find the people, train and promote them.

Without the message being sent from the top down, it's an exercise in futility."

And respect from the top can only come when the person running the show is a truly confident CEO, Savage said, someone who "surrounds him or herself with people of all different attributes.

To get there, first we need education and awareness, Rosenzweig said. Then, we need companies with proactive programs to formally support today's realities. Which might come along just in the nick of time for some companies, when it dawns on them that appealing to women and people from different cultures is the only way they're going to attract the decreasing number of workers in the marketplace.

So without the "self confident" CEO, without the flex programs in place, how do we change the corporate culture, the corporate landscape?

Rosenzweig thinks legislation might be the answer, at least to provide that critical mass of women in the boardroom.

Look at Norway, where in 2003, when women represented only 15.5 per cent of board members (we should be so lucky), a law was passed that mandated at least 40 per cent of board members of limited public companies be female. In 2006, the government upped the ante by saying that companies not in compliance would have to close their doors to business by Jan. 1, 2008.

Now, a mere five years later, these companies are nudging 40 per cent, giving that country the highest proportion of female board members in the world.

"The most alarmist people told us the economy would suffer, that investors would flee Oslo, that the level of competence on the boards would plunge," said Marit Hoel, head of Norway's Centre for Corporate Diversity.

"What we've seen is that the economy is doing very well, that the investors are still there, and that the women who have been appointed to the boards are more highly educated, more international and younger than their male counterparts, which creates a new dynamic.

"The law is a success."

This move, bold as it was, is a clear indicator of Rosenzweig's assertion that government is our strongest agent and legislation might be what's needed to spur change.