The current landscape for women in business in Canada and future opportunities

Canada roundtable

On 10th July 2019, the everywoman team hosted a Thought Leadership Roundtable in Toronto, Canada with female business leaders to discuss the current issues facing women at work in Canada. Below is an extract from the White Paper we produced as a result of this discussion.

Executive Summary

The everywoman team is grateful for the time afforded to us by those who joined us for our Ambassadors Thought Leadership Roundtable.  The generous sharing of personal journeys and workplace experiences deepened our understanding of the Canadian business landscape. It was valuable to spend time with a group of passionate leaders committed to the continued advancement of women both in Canada and around the world.

Canada is a multi-ethnic and multicultural country that has a progressive approach towards the advancement of women in business. Our research shows that Canada is a global leader in supporting its female population which is backed by government action, and much progress in reducing the gender gap has been made in recent years. However, this progress has not been distributed evenly, with minority ethnic women having a larger gender pay gap compared to white women. Despite high education rates, there is still a significant “glass ceiling” in corporate Canada resulting in women holding only a minority of leadership roles.

In general, progress among large organisations has been uneven across sectors; industries such as tech and finance have afforded better career prospects to women than others such as mining and oil & gas. Among individual companies, the commitment to advancing women into leadership is also uneven, with some Canadian companies having promoted the development of women for decades, compared to others who are still resistant to implement women-friendly policies such as flexible working.

Notable efforts to promote women in the workforce include the federal maternity leave policy, sponsorship and mentorship programmes, reverse mentoring and unconscious bias initiatives. Key challenges such as a male-dominated office culture, an expectation of unpaid workload1 at work from women, a need for flexible working and a lack of women in STEM are all barriers that need to be negotiated to achieve gender parity.

The status of women in Canada

According to the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2018, Canada ranks 16th out of 149 countries in terms of gender gap2, having climbed 20 spots between 2016 and 2017 thanks to strong governmental action that supports gender equality.

Despite this, women fill only 35% of managerial positions, 23% of STEM positions, and 29% of political seats, while taking on 64% of unpaid care work in the home3. Despite the fact that women comprise approximately 45% of all entry-level employees, only 25% of vice presidents and 15% of CEOs are women3. Women now represent 25% of FP500 board seats; however, 15% of the FP500 have no women on boards, while 95% of FP500 Directors say that diversity is very or somewhat important to them personally4.

Canada is ranked as having the 7th highest gender pay gap out of a list of 42 countries examined by the OECD, at 18.2% (compared to OECD average of 13.5%)5. Intersectionality is important when considering the wage gap in Canada; for instance, Indigenous women earn 18% less than the average non-Indigenous woman, and 46% less than the average white man6.

Gender equality is a federal government priority and the Department for Women and Gender Equality works to create equitable economic, political and social outcomes for Canadian women. Key federal government targets include a reduced gender wage gap; better gender balance across occupations; more company board seats held by women, and more diversity on company boards; more women in senior management positions; more diversity in senior leadership positions; and increased opportunities for women to start and grow their businesses, and succeed on a global scale.

In 2018, Ontario introduced the Pay Transparency Act which will require employees with 250 employees and more to report differences in compensation with respect to gender and other protected characteristics. The first round of reporting is due in 2020.

Discussion summary

According to McKinsey, closing the gender gap in Canada has the potential to deliver $150 billion in incremental GDP to Canada in 2026, which is 6% higher than forecast GDP growth, or the equivalent of adding another financial services sector to the economy3. As of the time of the report, women’s labour force participation in Canada is 61%3, compared to 71% in the UK7.

Both companies and government has been pushing for change, with the implementation of Gender Pay Gap reporting in Ontario from 2020 and positive discrimination policies being put into place by certain organisations. However there is also confusion and frustration at the lack of measurable progress in certain sectors, companies and departments. 

What are the key issues faced by women in business in Canada?

In general, the impression of the group is that Canadian businesses are aware of the importance of gender parity in the workplace and many organisations actively promote the advancement of women into leadership.

The availability of role models is essential to building confidence and self-belief in women and girls in Canada. With the changing demographics of the workforce, Millennials are used to seeing working women at the office. However, traditional gender roles persist in Canada as well as gendered behaviours which can be a hindrance in a male-dominated workforce, particularly as women move up the career ladder.

One of the key issues raised was the difficulty of exerting authority and leadership as a senior woman while avoiding the perception of being aggressive and adopting masculine communication patterns, particularly in male-dominated sectors such as insurance. On the other side of the spectrum, at the middle manager level there is an opportunity for female employees to challenge self-limiting beliefs, and to learn and develop their own methods of negotiation and self-promotion in order to get noticed and advance in their career. As in many countries around the world, Canadian women do not negotiate their salaries at the same rate as men and this risks perpetuating the gender pay gap.

In some markets such as in venture capital the culture is so male-dominated that it is off-putting for female entrepreneurs. During the discussion the start-up environment in Canada was compared to the UK for instance, where it was felt that female entrepreneurs were comparatively more supported and have set up their own community. This is supported by evidence from research which shows that in London, 17% of the total value of VC funds are given to businesses with at least 25% female executives compared to 4% in Toronto8; London is ranked as 5th best city for female entrepreneurs9 compared to Toronto’s 9th.

There is still an expectation for senior women to shoulder both an unpaid workload1 and office housework, that is, tasks which do not lead to career advancement and take away time from those that do. Additionally, women are held to higher standards than men resulting in much higher barriers to recognition and promotion. However, in Canada in general, women’s desire for promotion and rate of attrition are similar to men’s. When women do leave the workforce, less than 2% do so in order to focus on family3.

A recent McKinsey report supports these observations by noting that almost 60% of women report having experienced some form of microaggression at work, and at the VP level, women report being 5 times more likely than men to have to prove their competence, 3 times more likely to be addressed in a less-than-professional manner, and 3 times more likely to hear demeaning remarks10.

There is a gender bias in terms of the sectors and occupations in which women work in Canada. For instance, female engineering students at university level have increased by only 6% in the past 20 years. This will have a knock-on effect as the future of work transitions towards technology-driven occupations: among the top five occupations that could have the most net growth in the professional, scientific, and technical services sector, women on average only account for approximately 30% of the workforce today, as they are more represented in non-technology occupations, such as accounting and market research10. Therefore, increasing the participation of women in STEM careers and occupations is vital to closing the gender pay gap.

At the organisational level, there are a lot of women being hired at entry-level, including from technical and scientific backgrounds, but advancing and retaining women past the manager level remains difficult. Although sponsorship and mentorship schemes are common, the importance of prominent female role models is essential in order to model and pass on strategies for overcoming barriers such as lack of family support, negotiation skills, navigating a male-dominated environment, etc.

Although some Canadian workplaces now offer flexible and remote working options, there are many organisations whose cultures strongly value “face time” in the office. Combined with long commutes and relentless schedules, these organisations face considerable challenges in retaining women.

How can businesses be mindful and inclusive of intersectionality?

Despite Canada’s diverse population, ethnicity and race is not openly spoken about and there was an impression among the group that employees would benefit from protected-characteristic employee resource groups, which in the USA have been successful at identifying and addressing specific issues in the workplace. In Canada, cross-sectional ERGs are more common (e.g. Young Professionals, Women, etc.).

In Canada, inclusion at the workforce starts with awareness of unconscious bias and continues with active listening. Learning when to take up space and when not to is an important lesson for employees of all genders and backgrounds, but particularly for those whose characteristics give them privilege in a particular situation (e.g. being part of the majority, such as being male, white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, etc.). Behaving in an inclusive manner is a key leadership skill and should be encouraged at all levels of the business so that women of all backgrounds can thrive. The aim of inclusive behaviour is to make all employees feel valued.

How are men contributing to the advancement of women?

Sponsorship and mentorship programmes are common in Canada, and several of the roundtable attendees reported highly positive experiences with male sponsors who have championed them throughout their career. However, according to McKinsey, women at senior levels have fewer sponsors than men and their sponsors are mostly other women; throughout Canada, the majority of employees have sponsors of the same gender3, and due to the lack of women in leadership, this creates an imbalance by perpetuating the lack of sponsor opportunities for women.

The attendees noted that they rely on the support of men in their life for their continued professional success. In Canada, 36% of women who have partners are responsible for all or most household and childcare work, compared to 8% of men3. This gap, in addition to the pressure of proving their competence at work and dealing with office housework, all contribute to an environment where women have fewer resources to dedicate to high-visibility tasks, which contributes to the imbalance of women in senior leadership positions.

In addition to partners and spouses, family members and members of the employee’s wider environment play an important role in either supporting or hindering a woman’s career ambitions. For instance, for some women, the reality is that they are still expected to fulfill their duties as a wife, mother and daughter in addition to their responsibilities at the workplace.

How can businesses turn policies into actions that bring tangible results?

Measuring and publically reporting on key statistics around female hiring, retention and advancement is key to enacting impactful change. For instance, organisations which are able to demonstrate that there is an issue for certain groups are able to utilise positive discrimination policies. These statistics should also include information about the return on investment of diversity and inclusion initiatives so that senior leaders are able to bring the business case of these programmes to the executive team.

An approach taken by an attendee’s organisation in order to bring about measurable change is the requirement that if 3 men are promoted in a row, the next promotion must be a woman or someone with a protected characteristic. Policies like this have the potential of generating controversy and promoting a sense that men who are ready for promotion are being left behind or overlooked, so many organisations are strongly against the adoption of strict quotas. Other initiatives such as ensuring that the pipeline is diverse and casting a wider net when externally hiring (looking beyond the usual networks) can bring about measurable change. Promotions should be based on objective criteria and companies should be aware that socialising and networking activities which affect advancement decisions (e.g. drinking at the pub) can disadvantage women and people with protected characteristics.


1 Unpaid workload is defined as tasks expected of working women due to gendered expectations e.g. emotional support, mentoring, special favours etc. which disadvantages women if they refuse to offer it.
2 World Economic Forum, “Global Gender Gap Report 2018”.
3 McKinsey, “The power of parity: Advancing women’s equality in Canada”.
4 Canadian Board Diversity Council, “Annual Report Card 2018”.
5 OECD, Gender wage gap 2018.
6 Statistics Canada, April 2019 estimate.
7 UK House of Commons, Women and the Economy Briefing Paper 2019.
8 Toronto Blueprint and London Blueprint, Dell Women Entrepreneurs Cities Research 2018.
9 Dell Women Entrepreneur Cities Index 2017.
10 McKinsey, “The present and future of women at work in Canada” 2019.