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We've been complacent about women in business

Female leaders make companies more profitable, so why has there been so little progress on equality at work?
Tamara Vrooman, CEO, Vancity

Some years ago, soon after I took the job of CEO at Vancity, I was driving my son in our car. He must have been about six at the time and we were talking about numbers. He was learning about them at school, and I was explaining as best I could how I used them at work. After a long pause, he offered a fascinating question from the back seat: “Mom, can boys be CEOs too?”

It was an extraordinary, counter-intuitive moment. During our conversation that day he was sincere about learning new things and maybe one day following in my footsteps. For him, gender appeared to be his only barrier.

Obviously, he was innocently unaware that it’s most often women rather than men who face discrimination at work, and I would love for him to grow up in a world where gender doesn’t matter. But that world doesn’t yet exist and, at the current rate of change, it’s not likely to any time soon. The Minerva Foundation for BC Women has revealed in a Vancity-sponsored report that it will take 75 years before women can expect to achieve professional parity in Canada.

How is it that we as a society can have talked so much about gender equality and diversity, and yet achieved so little? I think it’s because we’ve become complacent. Without making a genuine commitment to change, we’ve assumed that because social attitudes have been improving, professional outcomes for women must have improved too. We tend to use a few good examples of women’s leadership and extrapolate a wider success. That’s a problem.

Sexist attitudes still exist and action on gender equality varies considerably among employers. I do know many that actively support women’s leadership, but unfortunately, even at these progressive companies, women continue to self-select out when it comes to promotion.

I suspect one of the reasons for this is that we’re not looking broadly enough at the context of people’s lives. When we’re at our best, we have equality in the workplace, in theory at least. But we struggle to achieve equality in the home, and until that happens, we aren’t going to get it in any meaningful way at work.

While many families are taking a more egalitarian approach to domestic responsibilities, the reality is that the job of building a home, and caring for children is still primarily seen as women’s work. We haven’t made affordable child care a priority and we persist in classifying it as an exclusively social issue, rather than a business and economic one as well.

I’ve heard anecdotally that men are grappling with some of the same issues women have been dealing with for decades. Those men who take parental leave or stay at home to raise children worry that it will limit their career progression and that they’ll lose the respect of peers, in-laws and parents. This should concern all of us, and it’s why Vancity commissioned research at the University of British Columbia to understand men’s attitudes toward parental leave and balancing their career progression. The results, due to be released soon, should make for interesting reading.

There’s no getting away from the fact that men and women don’t live in isolation – we need to talk about men’s choices too. The key task for employers is to adapt to the needs of their employees, whatever their gender identity or family arrangements. But the challenge here is broader than human resource plans, employer attitudes or even women’s ability to balance work and family life. It affects the entire economy.

If we can begin to make progress towards gender equality, the rewards are clear, according to a presentation by McKinsey & Co. at a recent Minerva inclusive leadership forum:

•If every country reached the regional best practice in gender equality, global GDP would rise 11 per cent.

•Top-quartile companies for women’s representation in executive committees see up to a 55 per cent increase in earnings versus companies with zero or low levels of women’s participation in executive committees.

•Women tend to demonstrate more often than men five of the nine types of leadership behaviour that improve organizational performance.

These days my son realizes that it’s rare to have a CEO for a mom. I only hope that we’ll see more good examples for kids like him to follow, and not just female ones. We also need to give men the social and financial licence to be role models as child-care providers and stay-at-home dads.

Basically, we can figure this out the easy way, relatively speaking, or we can figure it out the hard way. The easy way is to take much more effective action to improve employment practices, child-care policies and social attitudes. The hard way is that we come to realize too late that we’ve lost our competitiveness, that we can no longer attract the best talent or that we’ve made investments in people and then lost them just when they were reaching their full potential. I know which choice I’d make.

Tamara Vrooman is CEO of Vancity, Canada’s largest credit union.