Remarkably, too many women see, hear and speak no evil in the face of the male-dominated executive suite
Since the 1970s —that’s right, for more than 30 years— I have been arguing in speeches, lectures, appearances in the media, op-ed columns and in high-level meetings in boardrooms and in the councils of government that business needs to draw more of its top talent from the ranks of women. A report published by Catalyst shows that in Canada, at least, not that much progress has been made. Women held just 5.4 per cent of the top jobs at Canada’s 500 largest companies last year, up from 4.5 per cent two years earlier.
Overall, women remain largely excluded from the key jobs that signal corporate power and influence, despite comprising nearly half of the Canadian labour force and more than a third of all management roles,” said Deborah Gillis, executive director of Catalyst Canada.
Why has the pace of advancement been soooooooo slow?
Short answer: Too many men and women are prepared to turn a blind eye to it. In the 1990s, when Canada’s Toronto Stock Exchange was reviewing its corporate governance practices for publicly traded companies, I appeared before the committee and urged it to adopt language that recommended more women be appointed to corporate boards. Just the use of moral suasion, you understand, nothing too onerous. They refused. A similar plea was made to Canada’s Senate Banking Committee, where I have appeared as an expert witness on several occasions since 1994, and most recently, in 2003. They, too, declined to make such a recommendation. As far as I am aware, The Centre for Corporate & Public Governance, on whose behalf I was appearing, was the only group to call on these bodies to encourage the promotion of more qualified women. I heard not a word from any advocacy group at the time. I did hear from a number of my male colleagues in the corporate sector who expressed resentment over the proposal and made it clear that kind of talk would not be appreciated at the cozy club or in their boardrooms. Such feedback is helpful. I don’t believe backwards thinking should be rewarded in business and I always like to know what companies I should avoid as a consumer and investor; the list grows rather longer each year, unfortunately.
Fast-forward to one of the world’s most recognized names in cool telecommunications equipment: Research In Motion, makers of the iconic BlackBerry. It’s a brand used by many women, a number of whom also have stock in the company. But I don’t recall a note of criticism from any women or advocacy groups or by so-called enlightened pension funds about the fact that, since its inception as a publicly traded company and until several months after Finlay ON Governance first brought it to public attention last year, RIM had no women on its board or on its top executive team. It was an outrageous situation for any company that seeks the use of other people’s money, but all the more so for one whose co-CEO, Jim Balsillie, takes considerable credit for founding and heading the board of a non-profit think tank (supported with public funds) dealing with international governance issues.
Many are quick to decry the absence of more women in the executive suite and in the boardroom. And there are members of both genders who would like to see the workplace made more productive by tapping better the formidable talents of nearly half the labor force. But a remarkable number appear to regard this as a theoretical issue, and between the idea and the act they fall into T.S. Eliot’s shadow. When it comes to the real world where their voices and actions might make a difference —like with RIM for instance— too many still see, hear and speak no evil.