Moving the dial on women’s leadership

By Lori Mathison
Oct 15, 2018
Photo credit: RyanKing999/iStock/Getty Images

Companies want and need more women leaders. Research has shown that organizations focused on diversity, and in particular, gender diversity, perform better on almost every measure related to productivity and innovation. A frequently cited diversity study done by McKinsey & Co. found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity were 27 per cent more likely to outperform their industry benchmark in terms of profits. However, there are still hurdles to greater female engagement at the leadership level, and removing them could have a positive impact for all employees.

According to, in September 2017, only seven of the 249 companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange were run by women. Catalyst also noted that more women are working than ever before. In 2017, Statistics Canada reported that in B.C. the labour force participation rate for women ages 25 and over was 60.8 per cent, compared to 69.7 per cent for men.

Looking at my own industry, professional accounting, we have seen similar trends. Overall, the split between men and women is almost even in most age categories. The only exceptions, not surprisingly, are chartered professional accountants (CPAs) over 61, who are predominately male, and CPAs under 27, who skew slightly more female. 

While we are attracting more women to the profession, this positive gender split is not reflected in leadership roles. Based on available employment data, female CPAs in industry make up only 12 per cent of senior leadership roles at the director level and up. And although public practice accounting firms fare better, female CPAs still only make up 34 per cent of those at the partner level.

While these numbers are cause for concern, we know that Canada is making progress. Both the B.C. and federal government cabinets achieved gender parity. At the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, where I am the board chair, the board has achieved gender parity as well. And at CPABC, three-quarters of our senior management team are women. In the private sector, many companies – particularly in industries that were predominantly male-dominated, such as tech, the trades, and resources – have also begun to actively recruit women. 

But if women are in demand for their skills and perspectives, why are the leadership numbers still lagging? What are the challenges and how do we move forward?

The challenges haven’t really changed. It often comes down to family commitments. Women are still disproportionately doing the majority of unpaid work in the home, taking care of such things as household chores and child care. Women often require greater flexibility with their schedules and may be less available to take on additional responsibility at work. Statistics Canada found that in British Columbia, women were spending 36 per cent more time on unpaid labour at home than men. 

Recognizing this, we can shift corporate culture and try to better understand the full impact of balancing a family and career. Doing so will create an improved work environment that provides tangible and necessary support for everyone – from those with small children at home, to individuals caring for elderly parents.

Looking at those companies that have made progress, several key things stood out from the Globe and Mail’s 2018 list of the top family-friendly Canadian employers. First, all of the employers offered extended parental leave for new mothers and fathers, including adoptive parents, and many offered generous salary top ups for those on leave. In addition, the majority of these employers also provided a flexible work environment, including flexible start and end times, telecommuting, shortened or compressed work weeks, earned days off, and unpaid leave as required. Parents also had access to support and discussion groups – forums that highlighted work-life challenges and solutions for specific sectors. Some employers reduce work hours over the summer and provide on-site and emergency daycare. 

There is no turnkey solution that will work for every industry, but these types of initiatives go a long way towards making it easier for individuals to manage their careers and families. 

By providing choice, being open to innovative solutions, and providing greater flexibility in the workplace, the realities that we all face in balancing our work and family lives can be accommodated and supported. This will enable more women to embrace leadership roles and, ultimately, create a better work environment that puts people first.

Lori Mathison, FCPA, FCGA, LLB is the president and CEO of the CPABC.

Originally published in Business in Vancouver's "Women In Business Fall 2018".