The Facts about Women and Leadership in Canada

Women make up just over half of the Canadian population, yet continue to be underrepresented in political and professional leadership positions. Barriers to leadership multiply for women who face intersecting forms of discrimination, such as racism, colonialism, ableism, and homophobia.

Increasing diverse women’s representation in leadership is key to advancing gender justice in Canada. With more women in these roles, there’s greater opportunity to bring a gender lens to the decisions and policies that impact our future. The next generation of girls and young women will also benefit from having diverse role models to aspire to.

Why is it urgent to support diverse women in leadership?

  • Under-representation and inadequate representation in leadership and decision-making contributes to ongoing marginalization and inequality. Without meaningful representation, policies, programs and plans will fail to adequately consider the intersectional impacts of decisions (Canadian Women’s Foundation, Resetting Normal Report #4, 2021).

  • The COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately impacted women’s workforce participation and ability to pursue leadership roles, but their voices and representation will be crucial to the pandemic recovery process, as well as shock-proofing ourselves from future crises (UN Women, 2020).

  • The business case is strong: companies with higher levels of gender, ethnic, and cultural diversity are more likely to outperform their less diverse peers on profitability (McKinsey & Company, 2020).

Frequently Asked Questions about Women and Leadership

Although progress is being made toward gender diversity and inclusion in leadership roles, many systemic barriers and forms of discrimination block women’s paths forward.

Here’s a snapshot of women’s representation in professional leadership roles:

Women in Canada hold about a third (35.6%) of management occupations, and 30.9% of senior management level occupations (Statistics Canada, 2022)

When it comes to diversity among women, disaggregated data show that women of colour hold only 6.2% of women-held board, executive, senior management and pipeline-to-senior-management positions collectively, with Black women, Indigenous women, women with disabilities and LGBTQ2S+ women each holding less than 1% of women-held senior leadership and pipeline positions, respectively (Prosperity Project, 2022).

In Canadian corporations, women hold 18.3% of board member positions (Statistics Canada, 2021). For racialized women, representation on boards is even more disproportionate. In Toronto, for example, non-racialized women still outnumber racialized women in corporate leadership roles 12:1, despite the fact that racialized women outnumber non-racialized women in the general population (Toronto Metropolitan University Diversity Institute, 2020).

Just 4% of Canada’s largest publicly traded companies have a woman CEO (Globe & Mail, 2021).

Here’s a snapshot of women’s representation in political leadership roles:

Women make up 29% of Canada’s House of Commons (as of July 2021), which is the highest percentage in Canada’s history (Statistics Canada, 2022), yet falls significantly short of the 50% that would be considered a true representation of our population.

Although each of the last four elections has returned a new record number of women to Canada’s House of Commons, the percentage representation by women only moved from 22% to 29.6% in the twelve years from 2008 to 2020. At this rate of change, closing this gender gap is more than 30 years away (Canadian Women’s Foundation, Resetting Normal, 2021).

A 2022 global ranking of gender equality in National Parliaments ranked Canada at #59, placing it behind countries including Rwanda, Ecuador and Armenia. (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2022).

Women hold 15% of provincial premier positions,  18% of mayors’ positions and 28% of councillors’ seats in Canada (Federation of Canadian Municipalities, 2018).

The social and economic setbacks of the COVID-19 pandemic amplify pre-existing challenges for women’s pursuit of professional and political leadership roles (Canadian Women’s Foundation, Resetting Normal: Gender, Intersectionality and Leadership, 2021).

One in three Canadian women considered quitting their jobs during the pandemic to take on additional childcare responsibilities related to virtual education (Prosperity Project, 2020).

49% of Indigenous women and 55% of Black women reported struggling financially due to unpaid care work, compared to only 34% of white women. Increased care responsibilities had caused Indigenous women to give up looking for work at three times the rate of white women (Oxfam Canada, Care in the Time of Coronavirus, 2020).

Two years into the pandemic, the increased burden of caregiving has taken a serious toll on mothers’ and caregivers’ mental health. 48% of mothers said they were reaching their breaking points, and more than one third (39%) said they were struggling to keep up with work demands (Canadian Women’s Foundation, At this stage of the pandemic, new survey suggests circumstances have not improved for caregivers, 2022).

There is a real risk that pandemic-related pressures will reduce gender engagement in electoral politics, impacting who seeks representative office and who is likely to retain it. And these impacts could be long-term, considering that young women experienced the majority (59%) of early pandemic job losses by youth, and over one-third (36%) of all job losses reported by women, while receiving significantly less government financial support as students, and graduating into a shrinking and uncertain labour market (Canadian Women’s Foundation, Resetting Normal: Gender, Intersectionality and Leadership, 2021).

Increasing diverse women’s access to leadership roles has positive social, economic and political implications for all genders.

Women’s representation and leadership in decision-making bodies contributes to more inclusive and representative laws, rulings and policies. Countries with more women as key decision-makers in legislatures have lower levels of income inequality (Women Deliver).

Women leaders in Canada can also act as role models and mentors for young women. A KPMG study on women’s leadership found that:

  • 67% of women reported they had learned the most important lessons about leadership from other women.
  • 82% of professional working women believe access to and networking with female leaders will help them advance in their career.
  • 86% of women report that when they see more women in leadership, they are encouraged they can get there themselves.
  • 91% of working women indicated that it is important to them to be a positive role model for younger female colleagues in the workplace.

Some people argue that more men hold leadership roles because of their qualifications, but women are just as qualified as men in terms of education and experience.

  • As of 2015, 35% of Canadian women had a university certificate or degree, compared to 30% of men.1
  • Women and men also tend to have nearly equivalent job tenure. In a national study, both women and men report having worked for their current employer for an average of just under eight years.2

Research suggests that other factors, including gender stereotypes and biases, may be at play.

  • Despite spending equivalent time at a job, women are significantly less likely than men to be promoted. Women are 30% less likely than men to get promoted out of an entry-level position, and 60% less likely to move from middle management into the executive ranks.3
  • This may have a negative impact on how women view their own potential to lead. While six out of 10 professional women in the U.S. aspire to be a senior leader in their company or organization, the same number find it hard to see themselves as leaders.4

Additionally, many women take primary responsibility for home-based labour and childcare. These responsibilities may create work/life conflict and reinforce negative stereotypes, which are both barriers to accessing leadership roles.

  • Three quarters (75.8%) of part-time workers in Canada are women. The top reason women gave for working part-time was a need to care for children. Only 3.3% of men who work part-time cite the same reason.5
  • The high cost of childcare may cause mothers to quit their jobs in order to take care of the children themselves. In Canada, the gender-employment gap is largest in cities where daycare costs are highest.6
  • Interruptions to women’s careers tend to be longer and more frequent than those experienced by men. Women also report more spontaneous, short-term absences than men, such as staying home to care for a sick child or deal with a home repair.7
  • Both short- and long-term absences are stigmatized in the workplace, and have been linked to fewer promotions and salary increases.8

A 2017 report suggests that steps to decrease gender inequality in the workplace may benefit Canada’s economy by as much as $150 billion by 2026. If the gender gap was eliminated entirely, that number could rise to as high as $420 billion.9

High-performing businesses tend to have more women in leadership roles: 37% of leaders in higher-performing companies are women, compared to 19% of leaders in lower-ranked companies.10

Companies with the highest levels of diversity (either gender, ethnic, or racial) are anywhere from 15-35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry’s national average.11

In order to foster diversity in leadership, we need to broaden our perception of what makes a good leader.

Traditionally there has been a narrow definition of leadership, which influences who is chosen for these roles, and who aspires to take them on.

The Canadian Women’s Foundation advocates for inclusive leadership, a style that is:

  • Collaborative
  • Respects non-traditional ways of leading
  • Embraces diversity and includes the most marginalized voices
  • Shares knowledge and empowers those around them
  • Inclusive leadership is about “power with” rather than “power over”

In a KPMG study, women said that leadership training (57%), confidence-building (56%), decision-making (48%), networking (47%), and critical-thinking (46%) are the most important aspects of supporting and preparing women to pursue leadership roles.12

Three in four (76%) women wish they would have learned more about leadership when they were growing up, and that they had more opportunities to learn how to lead when they were growing up.13

Eighty-six per cent of women remember being taught to be nice to others growing up, but only 44% remember being taught to be a good leader and only 34% were taught to share their point of view.14

Through the programs we fund, the Canadian Women’s Foundation promotes leadership skills in the following ways:

The Canadian Women’s Foundation Leadership Institute

The Leadership Institute, established in partnership with the Coady Institute at St. Francis Xavier University, was designed to ensure that the next generation of female leaders in Canada’s nonprofit sector has the leadership skills they need to effectively manage change, build the sector, and become a force of change for women and girls. More than 70 mid-career women in the non-profit sector have received leadership training through this pilot project.

Mentorship

Many of the girls’ programs funded by the Foundation have a mentorship component, providing younger girls access to mentors, and training older girls to become mentors. We also fund violence prevention and economic developmentprograms for women that provide participants opportunities to become a mentor or work with a mentor.

Women- and girl-led programs

We invest in community programs that encourage women and girls to help shape the programs they attend. This helps participants develop leadership skills and become role models in their communities.

Amplifying the voices of women and girls

We invest in programs that help women and girls to find their voices, speak their minds, challenge gender stereotypes, and discover and celebrate their strengths.

Inclusive leadership

Women are often overlooked for leadership roles because they do not fit the mold of an “ideal leader.” That’s why the Foundation advocates for inclusive leadership, which is collaborative and welcomes the most marginalized voices.

What is the Foundation doing to advance women’s leadership?

We support programs that provide opportunities for women and girls to recognize and develop their leadership skills.

Learn more: Into Leadership

Your monthly donation can give women and girls the opportunity to build and practice leadership skills.

The Canadian Women’s Foundation Leadership Institute gave me the opportunity to connect with 25 women leaders from across Canada.

SYLVIA’S STORY

  1. Women in Canada: A gender-based statistical report. Women and Education: Qualifications, Skills and Technology, 2016. Chart 1. Available here
  2. Women in Canada: A gender-based statistical report. “Women and Paid Work,” 2017. Table 6. Statistics Canada. Available here
  3. How much does gender inequality cost Canada? $150B, report finds, 2017. CBC News. Available here
  4. KPMG Women’s Leadership Study, 2017. Page 9. KPMG. Available here
  5. Women in Canada: A gender-based statistical report. “Women and Paid Work,” 2017. Table 3. Statistics Canada. Available here
  6. Women in Canada: A gender-based statistical report. “Women and Paid Work,” 2017. Table 1. Statistics Canada. Available here
  7. Women in Canada: A gender-based statistical report. “Women and Paid Work,” 2017. Table 4. Statistics Canada. Available here
  8. Women in Canada: A gender-based statistical report. “Women and Paid Work,” 2017. Table 4. Statistics Canada. Available here
  9. Why diversity matters, 2015. McKinsey & Company. Available here
  10. How much does gender inequality cost Canada? $150B, report finds, 2017. CBC News. Available here
  11. Companies do better with women leaders (But women need more confidence to lead), Study says, 2014. Available here
  12. KPMG Women’s Leadership Study, 2017. Page 7. KPMG. Available here
  13. KPMG Women’s Leadership Study, 2017. Page 11. KPMG. Available here
  14. KPMG Women’s Leadership Study, 2017. Page 5. KPMG. Available here