Canadian women fare better than their global counterparts when it comes to climbing up through the ranks to senior leadership roles, but a pair of studies – one global and one Canadian – both reach the same conclusion: The number of women in the pipeline to these positions has declined markedly.

In the first study from the IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV), a survey of 2,500 organizations across 12 countries and 10 industries found a small increase in the number of women in C-suite and board level positions and an increase in the number of women in junior or specialist roles, but that those in the pipeline for top leadership positions still hasn’t recovered to pre-pandemic levels. In the IBM survey, the number of women in senior vice president roles has declined to 14 per cent, down from 18 per cent in 2019.

More, the survey found that fewer than half of the organizations surveyed, just 45 per cent report that advancing women in leadership roles is a formal business priority. “The research data shows the hollowing out in the middle is real,” they state. The report, entitled Women in leadership: Why perception outpaces the pipeline – and what to do about it, further states that real change and benefits only come when organizations build systems to embed and sustain necessary behaviours, accountability and action. And right now, our research suggests these systems are broken,” they state.

The report further found that optimism is rising, but doesn’t reflect reality. “Respondents estimate their industry will see gender parity in leadership in 10 years, compared to 2019 when the average industry estimate was 54 years,” the IBV’s researchers write. “The reality is, at the current rate of change, based on survey data, gender parity is still decades away. Structural barriers and unconscious bias also continue to hinder women’s advancement – only 40 per cent of male manager agreed that women with dependent children are just as dedicated to their jobs as those without children, for example. The majority of men also don’t see gender as a barrier to joining the company’s highest ranks. “In 2019, less than one-third of men thought a women could just as likely be a CEO as a man. Four years later, that percentage has jumped to 54 per cent,” they add. “If these perceptions of progress reflected real change, we would see a significant increase of women filling leadership roles today.” 

A second report, focused squarely on Canadian companies alone, reaches the same conclusion about those in the pipeline to senior management. Insurance and financial services companies score reasonably well in the survey, but the project’s researchers still say the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on those numbers.

“These declines should serve as a warning that if more organizations don’t take action and commit to recruitment, hiring and promotion strategies that promote gender equality, Canada stands to lose even more women in leadership roles over the next decade,” say researchers from the Prosperity Project – a registered charity created to address the fear that women would be disproportionally impacted by the pandemic. “The results of the most recent survey unfortunately confirm this with the drastic decline of women in pipeline to senior management roles.” 

Summarized in The Zero Report, The Prosperity Project researchers point out that 50.7 per cent of Canadians are women. “This is rarely reflected in corporate leadership,” they write. “Women continue to represent about one-third of corporate director roles, and just under one-third of executive officer roles.” They add that while these are slight increases, representation at the senior management level, and in the pipeline to senior management roles both decreased.

Faring notably better than their colleagues surveyed for the global study, the Canadian study shows that 39 per cent of those serving in board roles in the insurance and financial services industries are women, 35 per cent of executive officer roles are filled by women, 42 per cent of those in senior management roles are women and the pipeline to those positions is occupied by women 45 per cent of the time.