Nancy Wilson
Founder & CEO - Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce

It’s Canada’s Time to Close the Gender Parity Gap

Takeaways

  1. Canada has been highlighted as a top country for its clear outline to bridge the gender parity gap. However, we are falling short on our potential; progress for gender equality has stalled over the last 20 years. Canadians need to raise their focus and energy to drive real systemic changes.
  2. There are three priority challenges to address when looking at gender equality in the workplace: the burden women face as the primary unpaid caretakers in the home, discrepancies between the career advancement opportunities women receive compared to men, the motherhood penalty women face when taking parental leave.
  3. If Canada narrows the gender equality gap, we could increase our GDP up to $150 billion by 2026—a 6% rise. If Canada eliminates the gender parity gap by 2026, it could lead to a $420 billion gain in GDP.

Action

Gender equality has a strong business case; proven by many reputable sources across the world. We hear it; we read it. Perhaps, more importantly, it’s enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.So, it’s now time to listen to the women entrepreneurs on the front lines and make real changes that will remove obstacles and mitigate the challenges they face in the Canadian business ecosystem. And, to make the most immediate impact, investors need to overcome the hesitation of taking a woman’s business seriously, of taking a woman entrepreneur seriously, of listening and investing in women-owned businesses. It will change Canada for the better.


How would you describe the current state of gender equality and inclusivity in the Canadian economy?

In a McKinsey & Company report published in 2017 called The Power of Parity: Advancing women’s equality in Canada, Canada ranked in the top 10 countries in the world for gender parity—which is great. We have the prerequisite components in place for significant gender equality that include: high levels of female education attainment and workforce participation, excellent levels of healthcare for mothers and for infants, and we generally offer good legal protection for women.

However, the study points out that despite having these key pieces in place, progress towards inclusion and true gender equality in Canada has stalled over the last 20 years. We aren’t making headway on our targets in ways that reflect the strong framework our country has put in place. There has not been an increase in workforce participation, entrepreneurialism or corporate leadership commensurate with women’s educational attainment and overall contribution to the economy. This makes the present state of gender equality in Canada disappointing.

“There has not been an increase in workforce participation, entrepreneurialism or corporate leadership commensurate with women’s educational attainment and overall contribution to the economy. This makes the present state of gender equality in Canada disappointing.”

While the numbers are still far from parity, there is an optimism to drive systemic changes. Canadians need to raise their focus and energy on implementing the right policies that will move forward the gender equality movement.


What are some challenges women face when they enter the workforce, embark on entrepreneurial ventures, or progress in their careers?

The first is unpaid care work or unpaid labour. Around the world, women remain the principal caretakers. They are responsible for childcare, eldercare and household chores, and this means they work fewer hours in the formal economy. The problem is that it’s difficult to capture that unpaid labour in a real tangible business case, which makes this issue go unnoticed. Even though it impacts their earning capacity and the perception of their ability to contribute within the workplace.

This is a big focus of our advocacy agenda, and we are investigating how to improve unpaid labour through case studies. For example, Western Europe and Quebec have proven that providing universal daycare that is free, or heavily subsidized, yields a direct increase in the number of hours that women can work outside the home.

“We see a discrepancy in the type of tasks and projects assigned to women staff versus men, which make women less likely to be selected to serve on boardsand directs their careers in sharp silos.”

The second issue is the unconscious bias we know of, which is pervasive and prevents women from advancing. Although complicated to pin down, these biases are very influential and can stack up over the course of a woman’s career. Research indicates no variation among students who complete their studies and enter the workforce; the level of ambition between women and men and their career goals is the same. However, there is a consistent drop in women who hold leadership positions in middle and senior management, C-level and boards, as they move through their careers.  When we zoom in on this, we see a discrepancy in the type of tasks and projects assigned to women staff versus men, which make women less likely to be selected to serve on boardsand directs their careers in sharp silos. Joint with the reality of salary gaps between women and men at entry-level salaries, these factors cascade throughout a woman’s career.

The third issue concerns gender norms and policies on parental leave. There is a well-documented motherhood penalty and drop in earnings, particularly when mothers have children earlier in their lives. This follows their career for up to five years, whilst fathers are seen to be better, more reliable employees.


Should Canadian companies or governments set gender equity targets or quotas?

Targets are an easy decision, and to be effective they need to be ambitious, trackable and reportable. Quotas are more controversial. There was a time when I resisted quotas as a potential intervention, but my opinion on this tactic is changing based on more research on the matter that show significant and rapid changes among countries that have implemented quotas. There is a fear that quotas will cause major backlash. For businesses, finding people with the right experience is difficult even before we factor in gender. And so, there might be a feeling that the best person for the job is not being hired. But the perception of meritocracy happening right now does not hold water—businesses are overlooking a pool of female talent with relevant work experience.

“It’s important toshakethings up to adjust the gender mix in the workforce and senior leadership on boards because the pace at which we are moving towards equality is unacceptable and the changes are not being made.”

Although I am undecided whether gender equality quotas are the ideal solution, I am definitely keeping an open mind to it because we need to do something drastic. Whether it’s a positive incentive, a quota or even a penalty for noncompliance. It’s important toshakethings up to adjust the gender mix in the workforce and senior leadership on boards because the pace at which we are moving towards equality is unacceptable and the changes are not being made. If we want to see progress, then business leaders and governments need to be open to critical review from within their organizations and to external voices as well, and be willing to listen to the individuals that are committed to real lasting change—not just short-term Band-Aid solutions.


What would be the economic impact of gender equity in the workforce on the Canadian economy? What other impacts would it yield?

There has been a dedicated campaign to put forward a business case for diversification to prove how it can improve our economy. The McKinsey report highlights the returns gender equality would bring the Canadian economy. If we narrow the gender parity gap, by 2026, we could increase our gross domestic product by up to $150 billion—a 6% rise in GDP. If we end the gender parity gap by 2026, it could lead to a $420 billion gain in GDP.

Yet, while the business case for gender parity shows an impressive outcome, little progress has happened, and I would argue that approaching this issue in business terms—with data and figures—has the opposite effect we want as advocates. It ends up dehumanizing the cause. Increasing gender equity in the workforce would lead to a better quality of life for women, men, employees and employers. We are talking about our coworkers, friends and family members and their fundamental right to be treated equally.

“We are dealing with matters that are core to human dignity and human condition. It concerns how we treat each other in our communities, so it should incite a level of devotion and outrage, but not necessarily be adversarial.”

Everybody who thinks about gender parity and looking for solutions understands that equality and inclusion benefits everyone involved. It’s an issue that can bring up strong emotion and passion—and rightly so. We are dealing with matters that are core to human dignity and human condition. It concerns how we treat each other in our communities, so it should incite a level of devotion and outrage, but not necessarily be adversarial.


How can we inspire Canadian girls and young women to aspire to leadership positions?

When I think of women entrepreneurs or women in senior leadership positions, I hesitate to put too much responsibility on their shoulders to serve as mentors, guides or role models for the next generation because they have been working, struggling and fighting throughout their career to get to where they are today. I find it unfair to expect them to commit additional, often unpaid, time and their energy to lift younger women to achieve the same level of success.

“Canada should work to develop a strong network of women entrepreneurs that give support to one another in a unified, cohesive way and advocate for what they need.”

Instead, Canada should work to develop a strong network of women entrepreneurs that give support to one another in a unified, cohesive way and advocate for what they need.We are all accountable to work together and change Canadian societies to be fair and inclusive. Research needs to continue to benchmark equal opportunity, but we also need to listen to women who are living the challenges in their every day.

So I recommend we stop reading the reports; put them down on the table, look up and listen. We need to listen to the women who are on the front lines and make real changes that will remove obstacles and mitigate the challenges they face in the Canadian business ecosystem.Lastly, to make the most immediate impact, investors should back women. Investors need to overcome the hesitation of taking a woman’s business seriously, of taking a woman entrepreneur seriously, of listening and investing in women-owned businesses. It will change Canada for the better.