Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to mandate gender equality in his 30-member cabinet has been welcomed by those working to promote women in leadership roles, but they say there’s still much work to be done in both the public and private sector.
Fifteen women swore their oaths along with Trudeau at the Rideau Hall in Ottawa last Wednesday.
In a news conference after the ceremony, Trudeau was succinct in his explanation for why he felt the need to have gender parity in his cabinet.
“Because it’s 2015,” he said.
Pamela Johnson, who heads the International Centre for Women’s Leadership at St. Francis Xavier University, said the image of Trudeau surrounded by women as he announced the new cabinet before the TV cameras was important for creating role models for the next generation of leaders.
“It’s really essential for women to see other women in these leadership positions,” she said.
Beyond the symbolism of having a cabinet with equal representation of men and women, she said, Trudeau’s move was important for giving women an equal voice on Parliament Hill.
The women in cabinet will now be able to move their agendas forward and provide their perspective on the issues facing Canada.
“Representation is not just about the visual of women in leadership positions,” she said. “It’s about having an agenda to have women come forward and be recognized as equal citizens.”
Yet despite the win for the representation of women in cabinet, she said, there is still a huge gender gap at the top levels of the public and private sectors.
According to research from advocacy group Catalyst Canada, women took up 20.8 per cent of the positions on corporate boards in Canada in 2014. That’s better than the United States, at 19.2 per cent, but lags behind many other countries including Norway, where women hold 35.5 per cent of its corporate director positions, France, where the figure is 29.7 per cent, and the United Kingdom, where it is 22.8 per cent.
Alex Johnston, executive director of Catalyst Canada, says the organization’s work shows that the different treatment of women in the corporate world starts right after business school.
“None of this is happening deliberately, but there are patterns of behaviour that reassert themselves,” she said.
Her office is one part of a larger multi-national Catalyst group, which monitors the outcomes for more than 8,000 MBA graduates around the world.
The research in Canada, she said, shows that women with similar skills to men are paid around $8,000 less in salary in their first job, are assigned less important projects with smaller budgets and have a more difficult time attaining their first promotion.
The decision happens quietly and subtly, she said, and women assigned lesser work will inevitably come off worse when it comes time to choose the person to reward three years later.
“People who say they have no personal bias will say ‘look at what he took on and delivered, and look at what she took on and delivered,’” she said. “The decision three years earlier to assign them lesser work was monumental for their career trajectory.”
With the difficulties for those at the bottom, she said, there’s no wonder it’s difficult for women to rise to the top.
Yet Johnston said Trudeau’s actions were important in setting an example for corporate Canada, and she said there’s a growing awareness among many executives that having more women in leadership positions means they’re taking better advantage of their human resources.
Treating men and women equally means having a bigger pool to choose from when it comes to picking leaders, she said, and that means gender parity is good for business.
Setting goals and targets, as Trudeau did, is as important for building that pool of talented people as setting goals and targets for revenues and profits, she said, and the prime minister’s actions are one more example of how Canada is changing for the better when it comes to the treatment of women.
“I don’t love where we’ve been, but I like where we’re going,” she said.