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Women in Leadership: A Snapshot of the Canadian Landscape

Discussions around having more women at the leadership table have gathered momentum as companies focus on fostering greater diversity and inclusion.

While Canada has seen a steady albeit slow growth in the advancement of women in business, diversity gaps are still prevalent at the board level (Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP. 2020).

women in leadership

Mandatory disclosure – the double-edged sword

In 2015, after what must have felt like extensive debate and reflection, the Canadian Securities Commission decided to require publicly listed companies and other corporations to disclose how many women hold executive leadership positions. This mandatory disclosure effectively highlights what companies are doing to promote gender diversity in the workplace. It shines the light on internal company practices and provides social pressure for organizations to address diversity and inclusion gaps. As clients become more socially aware and search for business partners with similar values, the impact on the image of an organization not meeting the required levels could mean lost business opportunities.

While there is a quantifiable improvement in representation, the unintentional consequence is some men now express that they feel somewhat pressured to put women into senior roles simply because of their gender – not their capability. Mandatory disclosure, therefore, is a double-edged sword. While pleased to have a seat at the table, women may now feel that they have to work a lot harder than their male counterparts to prove their credibility.

Female role models and mentors

As they progress through their careers, women often display a natural interest and curiosity in how other women have succeeded. Strong female role models or mentors (Kennedy and Pulvermacher, 2020), are an essential component of a woman’s development journey. There are a few visible and vocal positive female role models, but when compared with the number of male counterparts – the percentage split is far from even.

An unfortunate and archaic perception is that a woman can have a family, or a career – but not both. This belief is sometimes perpetuated when female role models have strained family relationships or get divorced because of demanding careers (Smith, 2019). It’s not about passing judgement. Every woman has the right to a lifestyle choice that fits her personal convictions. However, if women still want to be available to their family, having role models that present an “either/ or” approach may put those with great potential off from pursuing a promising career.

One need only look at the shining example of countries with female leaders during the pandemic to illustrate what is possible when women in leadership rise to meet the moment. Denmark, Iceland, New Zealand, Germany and Slovakia’s heads of state have all been recognized on a global scale for the effectiveness of their response to COVID-19 (Why More Countries Need Female Leaders, 2021)

Melinda Gates recently echoed the profound impact that women have, and their crucial leadership role in a post-pandemic world, stating (Ellis, 2020):

“This is how we can emerge from the pandemic in all of its dimensions: by recognizing that women are not just victims of a broken world; they can be architects of a better one.”

Providing support mechanisms

Canada is not where it should be in terms of diversity and inclusion; however, we’re taking steps that are moving us in the right direction as a country.

The focus on childcare and early learning in the 2021 budget provides much a needed support structure for working mothers (Budget 2021: A Canada-wide Early Learning and Child Care Plan –, 2021). When mothers have peace of mind that their children are provided for, they have the confidence to explore opportunities for growth and promotion.

By providing support options like flexible working schedules, or subsidized day-care, organizations can create the kinds of environments that enable working mothers to thrive and add value.

Strength in diversity – leveraging the skills of all genders

Without veering into the realm of stereotypes, it’s clear that men and women approach business in different ways. Instead of seeing those differences as a source of division, there is an opportunity for us to learn from each other and adapt our approach for the good of the organization.

How do we behave? How do we approach situations? How do we show up? We should honour those differences and seek to leverage the skills of varied groups. Diversity, in all forms, brings varied points of view, which creates strong organizations.

Lessons from women leading large family businesses in Canada

Because of their unique dynamics, family businesses more readily enable the emergence of women in executive positions (Moore, 2020). A key shaping influence identified by formidable female leaders of large family-owned businesses is the equal leadership roles held by both parents when founding the business. Business insights, challenges and successes were also shared by mothers and fathers at the dinner table – the quintessential ‘kitchen MBA’. Regardless of gender, children have an equal opportunity to demonstrate character, aptitude and interest in the business over time.

Reference: 2021. Budget 2021: A Canada-wide Early Learning and Child Care Plan – [online]  [Accessed 18 May 2021].

Ellis, A., 2020. Building Forward Better’ – Why Women’s Leadership Matters. [online] International Leadership Association. :  [Accessed 18 May 2021].

Kennedy, L. and Pulvermacher, G., 2020. Mentoring – Developing next-generation leaders to take the business further | PKA. [online] PKA.  [Accessed 18 May 2021].

Moore, K., 2020. 3 Key Takeaways From Women Leading Large Family Businesses In Canada. [online] Forbes.  [Accessed 12 April 2021].

Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP. 2020. Board diversity disclosure: is the dial moving in corporate Canada?. [online]  [Accessed 18 May 2021].

Smith, S., 2019. 5 Causes of Divorce for Female Entrepreneurs & How to Save Your Marriage. [online] Divorced Moms. [Accessed 18 May 2021].

US News and World Report. 2021. Why More Countries Need Female Leaders. [online]  [Accessed 18 May 2021].

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