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 and mentors across industries and sectors.

Why is it urgent to support diverse women in leadership?

Frequently Asked Questions about Women and Leadership

Although progress is being made toward gender diversity and inclusion in leadership roles, there are still many gaps in the representation of diverse women in both professional and political spheres.

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, Just the Facts: International Women’s Day 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, Women with Intersecting Identities Underrepresented in Canadian Leadership, 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, Diversity Leads 2020).

Just 4% of Canada’s largest publicly traded companies have a woman CEO (Globe & Mail, Corporate Canada is Still a Boys’ Club, Data Analysis Shows – And COVID-19 Could Make it More So, 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, Just the Facts: International Women’s Day 2022). Yet it 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: Gender, Intersectionality and Leadership 2021).

A May 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, Monthly Ranking of Women in National Parliaments, May 2022).

Women hold 15% of provincial premier positions,  18% of mayors’ positions and 28% of councillors’ seats in Canada (Federation of Canadian Municipalities, Toward Parity in Municipal Politics, 2018-2021).

The leadership imbalance in Canada’s professional and political institutions is rooted in patriarchal, colonial, and discriminatory practices, which create additional barriers for diverse women, transgender and Two-Spirit people. While many do overcome these barriers and pursue leadership roles, systemic change is needed to increase women’s representation in decision-making spaces.

Systemic sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia all contribute to the social conditions that women experience throughout their lives, as well as access to economic security and civic participation. Education and income levels, employment and social status are all determinants of health and of civic participation (Canadian Women’s Foundation, Resetting Normal: Gender, Intersectionality and Leadership 2021).

Lack of access to diverse women role models, mentors, and networking opportunities impacts women’s and girls’ abilities to see themselves in these roles and navigate toward them (OECD, Policies and Practices to Promote Women in Leadership Roles in the Private Sector, 2020).

Entrenched stereotypes and bias about women’s leadership capabilities reduces the possibility that leadership development opportunities and roles will be offered to them (DDI, Gender Bias in Leadership Starts at Day 1, 2021).

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 (CBC News, How much does gender inequality cost Canada? $150B, report finds, 2017).

The disproportionate level of sexism, discrimination, and hate directed at women leaders, particularly in political roles plays a role in their decisions on whether to pursue or stay in these roles. (CBC, Female politicians speak out about sexist, violent cyberbullying, 2017 and The Tyee, Jody Wilson-Raybould: Today’s Politics are Toxic to Indigenous Women, 2021)

Many women take primary responsibility for home-based labour and childcare. Women do almost twice as much unpaid care work as men, which encroaches on their potential for career advancement (Oxfam Canada, Who Cares? Why Canada Needs a Public Child Care System, 2019). 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 (Statistics Canada: Women in Canada: A gender-based statistical report. “Women and Paid Work,” 2017).

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 (Statistics Canada, Women in Canada: A gender-based statistical report. “Women and Paid Work,” 2017. Table 4.).

Both short- and long-term absences are stigmatized in the workplace, and have been linked to fewer promotions and salary increases (Statistics Canada, Women in Canada: A gender-based statistical report. “Women and Paid Work,” 2017).

Lack of access to affordable, quality childcare influences women’s ability to participate in the workforce and pursue leadership roles (Oxfam Canada, Who Cares? Why Canada Needs a Public Child Care System, 2019).

Lack of access to flexible, family-friendly work arrangements may make it too difficult for women to balance paid work and career advancement with care work (OECD, Policies and Practices to Promote Women in Leadership Roles in the Private Sector, 2020).

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, One Third of Canadian Women Consider Quitting Jobs, 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 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 can improve social, economic and political outcomes 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 in Leadership).

A literature review of women’s leadership in local governments in Canada affirms that “women’s participation and representation contribute to the strengthening of Canada’s democracy and the effectiveness of its institutions. It also promotes greater diversity of thought and experience, enables the construction of more inclusive and meaningful citizenship, and generates the conditions for the empowerment of marginalized groups.” (Meghan Brooks, The Role of Municipalities in Advancing Women’s Equity in Canada, Canadian Commission for UNESCO’s IdeaLab, November 2018).

There is a positive correlation between the number of women on councils and investment in social welfare programs (Institute for Women’s Policy Research, The Status of Women in the States, 2015) and in policies that respond to women’s needs and concerns (Women as Policy Makers: Evidence from a Randomized Policy Experiment in India, 2004).

The business case for increasing diversity in leadership is also strong: companies with higher levels of gender, ethnic, and cultural diversity are more likely to outperform their less diverse peers on profitability (McKinsey & Company, Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters, 2020).

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 (McKinsey & Company, The Power of Parity: Advancing Women’s Equality in Canada, 2017).

In addition to these benefits, women leaders in Canada can also serve 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.

Having access to role models and mentors is also critical to women’s decisions to enter electoral politics. This access helps them to acquire skills, show that they are not alone, and build their confidence and capacity to lead (House of Commons Canada, Elect Her: A Roadmap for Improving the Representation of Women in Politics, 2019).

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. Research indicates that when people think of a leader, they are more likely to picture a man (New York Times, Picture a Leader. Is She a Woman?, 2018 and The Conversation, Girls Learn Early That They Don’t Have Much of a Place in Politics, 2021).

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 both political and professional settings, decision-makers can take steps to decolonize leadership (Canadian Women’s Foundation, Resetting Normal, 2021). Decolonizing leadership includes:

  • Addressing traditional perceptions of leaders that are rooted in colonial, white supremacist, capitalist, and patriarchal ideals of power, and becoming more inclusive of alternative leadership models and practices
  • Conversations on civic leadership need to take the place of Indigenous women and Two-Spirit people into account and ensure they are represented in governance.
  • Rethinking rigid leadership requirements that may create unnecessary barriers, and that discount the contributions of marginalized groups to social change
  • Creating leadership development opportunities accessible to all young people; not only those who are in a position to engage in unpaid work or internships
  • Developing policies and recruitment processes that value lived experience and non-institutional leadership as indicators of advanced leadership skills

In workplaces, encouraging diverse women’s advancement starts with creating “a culture that fully leverages the benefits of diversity – one in which women, and all employees, feel comfortable bringing their unique ideas, perspectives, and experiences to the table.” (McKinsey & Company, Women in the Workplace, 2021)

Workplaces can start by asking themselves and staff what they can do differently to remove barriers to diverse women’s leadership. The RBC In Good Company workplace checklist offers a starting point that companies can use to address gaps and take action.

To help accelerate progress, companies need to track representation and hiring outcomes. While some companies measure these metrics for women generally, they should also capture the representation of diverse women. Companies can also hold senior leaders accountable for their role in hiring and promotion decisions, and progress made. (McKinsey & Company, Women in the Workplace, 2021)

Employers must recognize women’s work to support colleagues and implement diversity and inclusion initiatives as critical contributions. During the pandemic, many women managers took on more work related to supporting fellow staff members’ well-being through the crisis and implementing new diversity and inclusion initiatives, which often went beyond their job descriptions. Women leaders are up to twice as likely to spend substantial time on diversity and inclusion work, which often goes unrecognized (McKinsey & Company, Women in the Workplace, 2021).

Advocacy for diverse women’s leadership

During the pandemic, the Foundation collaborated to produce Resetting Normal, a series of reports that offer a roadmap to pandemic recovery with gender equality at the centre. The report Resetting Normal: Gender, Intersectionality and Leadership focuses on how diverse and inclusive leadership will be critical to Canada’s recovery and the advancement of gender justice.

Since 2017, the Foundation has been part of the RBC Foundation’s In Good Company project, which aims to reduce the barriers women and gender-diverse people face in workplace advancement. It also aims to test Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) solutions that are practical and actionable while positively impacting the DEI field in Canada.

Funded programs

Through the programs we fund, the Foundation promotes leadership skills in the following ways:

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.

Last Update: May 30, 2022

Data Snapshot

29%
women in Canada’s House of Commons

#59
Canada’s place on global ranking of National Parliaments

6.2%
percentage of women-held board and management spots held by women of colour

30%
women are 30% less likely than men to get promoted out of an entry-level job

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