A significant number of Canadians are still uncomfortable with women leading prominent companies, even after years of efforts to improve gender equality and reduce sexism in the workforce.
Only 62 per cent of Canadians in a recent survey say they would feel “very comfortable” having a woman as the chief executive officer of a major company in their country. When broken down by gender, 67 per cent of women and just 57 per cent of men would feel comfortable with a woman in that position.
That is according to the Reykjavik Index for Leadership, which released an annual report on Tuesday measuring perceptions and prejudices towards women in leadership roles in the G7 countries. The report — compiled by research firm Kantar and Women Political Leaders, an organization aimed at increasing the number and influence of women in leadership positions — surveyed 22,000 people aged 18 to 64, including at least 2,000 Canadians, between July and September to reach its conclusions.
“In every country we researched, women are more likely to see men and women as equally suitable to lead, and women themselves are not 100 per cent very comfortable with women in a CEO position,” said Michelle Harrison, the CEO of Kantar’s public division, in an email. “This disparity reveals the attitudes that inhibit society from true equality.” (The report does not provide any data revealing how respondents felt about male CEOs.)
Canada tied with France for first place, when the report ranked countries based on the extent to which men and women are viewed to be equally suitable for leadership. Trailing them were the U.S. and U.K., with Japan, Germany and Italy rounding out the bottom of the list.
The previous year Canada also tied with France, but for the second place spot, behind the U.K.
When the report looked at equality across 22 industries, Canada ranked first in 14 of them, including the automotive and aerospace sectors, which are typically male-dominated.
“Prime Minister Justin Trudeau placed gender equality at the top of his priority list during G7 2018, so what we see may be the result of a concerted effort in Canadian public policy,” said Harris. “However, whilst Canada scores the highest amongst the countries in this research, Canada, like every country studied, is a country where women experience significant and ongoing discrimination that constrains their ability to exercise their potential for leadership.”
Stephania Varalli, the co-CEO at advocacy organization Women of Influence, said she is “sad” but not surprised that she often hears some Canadians are uncomfortable with women in leadership.
“If you’re asking men who are in power now, they most likely came up through power in a system where there were fewer women leaders,” she said. “It goes back to kind of an unconscious bias of putting men in certain roles and women in certain roles, and that’s something that takes some time to change.”
Many have complained that the trek towards equal representation has been slow. The number of women on the boards of companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange only reached 17 per cent in 2019, according to the Canadian Securities Administrators. In 2015, women only made up 11 per cent of boards.
Women’s representation in the senior ranks of those corporations is even worse. Only four per cent of companies on the TSX have a woman CEO. None of Canada’s TSX 60 companies in 2018 were headed by a woman and two-thirds did not include a single woman among top earners, according to an analysis from The Canadian Press.
Experts often say change is hampered by a lack of sponsorship for women, the predilection of executives and boards for appointing people already in their inner circle, child care responsibilities falling mostly to mothers and long-held misconceptions about a woman’s capability and dedication to running a company.
Vandana Juneja, the vice-president of global markets at women’s equality organization Catalyst, has seen banks really put an emphasis on fixing these problems, but believes change has to come from every industry.
“We need to be able to break down those sort of barriers and biases,” she said. “There’s opportunities to address unconscious biases and to not only become aware of what our own biases may be and those of others.”
Varalli believes society can address some of those biases by watching the language it uses because it can foster unfortunate perceptions.
“I worry when a lot of the narrative around is calling (women leaders) things like ‘girl bosses’ because we immediately sort of say, ‘well, women can be bosses, but they’re the girl version of the real thing,’” she said.
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However, Varalli is heartened by the push she has seen in recent years to address the lack of women.
“Even though there are certainly people in power, who still can’t see women as CEOs, there’s a lot of men who are CEOs who are really coming on as allies, and using the power that they do have to try and make things better for women and for other nondominant groups,” she said.
“We’re in a place now where the conversations are happening more … but I still feel like more needs to be done.”