Female leaders: The paternal cycle

Female CEOs are still a rare sight at many of Canada’s public companies.

Take a quick look at the people who rule the most moneyed public companies in Canada. Without fail, each is headed by a man. Indeed, in 2007 women filled an appalling 5.8% of the top five senior positions at the 100 largest Canadian companies, according to the third annual Rosenzweig Report, down from just 6.9% in 2006. The drop, to 31 from 37 women, indicates a corporate culture that still doesn’t encourage — or perhaps even allow — females the chance to climb to the top.

The basic reason for this gender gap, says Jay Rosenzweig, managing partner of Toronto-based executive recruiter Rosenzweig & Co., is because of subtle, yet deeply entrenched, biases. People tend to hire others who are like them, and they still ask: can she handle a big job and raise two kids at the same time? “There still does remain, in my view, an old boys’ club,” says Rosenzweig.

One of the most tired stereotypes is that women are not as logical as men in the way they think, says Beatrix Dart, executive director for the Initiative for Women in Business at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto. That is, of course, untrue, but one reason women often hit a glass ceiling is that they define success differently from men. Though Dart admits it’s a generalization, men often equate success with career victories, while women define it much more broadly. “For women, success also means to have the feeling of self-fulfillment, to add something to society or the community. Or maybe success is being able to balance family and career.”

Yet one oft-cited report, Women “Take Care,” Men “Take Charge:” Stereotyping of U.S. Business Leaders Exposed by New York consultant Catalyst Inc., concluded that merely hiring more female managers won’t eliminate stereotypes. Instead, corporations must embrace a culture that values diversity of thought.

For example, the traditional view of what constitutes networking actually works in men’s favour. A man can spend four hours on the golf course with business associates and it’s considered a perfectly acceptable use of corporate time. But “if a woman takes off the afternoon to spend four hours on a not-for-profit board for a cause that is close to their hearts, that might not get quite the same recognition,” Dart says. “I would argue that the business model that is currently predominant in corporate Canada does not allow for women to achieve their more complex version of success.”

Rotman is trying to help executive women find their authentic leadership style through an initiative called the Judy Project. Every year, 25 of the most senior Canadian corporate women meet to discuss issues such as introducing more flexible work schedules and creating cultures that allow both sexes to rise to the top. But until companies actually start implementing these types of changes, Canada will continue to be stuck in a paternal cycle.