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He Says, She Says: Gender Gap Persists in Attitudes Toward Women's Advancement in the Workplace

Attitudes about advancing women into senior management roles are still polarized along gender lines. Men in senior executive positions appear to be the least concerned about increasing the number of women in the top ranks of organizations.

Ottawa, May 15, 2013—Attitudes about advancing women into senior management roles are still polarized along gender lines. Men in senior executive positions appear to be the least concerned about increasing the number of women in the top ranks of organizations.

Yet the stagnating advancement of women to senior positions in recent decades may be due to more than the attitudes of men. Women in Leadership: Perceptions and Priorities for Change finds that a gap in opportunities between women and men emerges early in their respective careers – at the first level of management. Compared to men, women are less likely to feel they can obtain line management responsibilities, creating an experience gap at the earliest stages of their management careers. 

Further, both women and men were of the view that leadership development and human resource management programs were not serving their intended purposes – identifying and developing the next generation of leadership candidates.

“Gender diversity in senior management is a strategic and cultural issue within organizations. Our research shows that barriers to women’s advancement exist throughout organizations, but the responsibility starts at the very top – with the board of directors and the existing senior management,” said Ian Cullwick, Vice-President, Leadership and Human Resources

Chart on the support for increasing the number of women in senior management, by gender and level.“It will take more than neutrality on the part of senior male executives to bring about significant improvement in the advancement of women within organizations."

Numerous studies have shown that organizations improve their bottom lines when they have more women in senior management positions. 

Leadership opportunities, motivations and abilities are three factors that are crucial to women’s advancement. In the research, a fourth factor has emerged as even more crucial – attitudes. These attitudes can have a huge influence on the other factors. Eighty-six (86) per cent of women believe there is still a glass ceiling. While 68 per cent of women managers think that the organizations are still run by an “old-boys club”, only 43 per cent of men agree. 

This finding shows in the survey results when upper-level female managers indicated that they have the same aspirations as their male counterparts to reach senior management. Women in first-level management, however, appeared less ambitious to reach senior levels of the organization than men.

“Paradoxically, we may need more female leaders before we can increase the number of women in senior management,” said Donna Burnett-Vachon, Associate Director, Leadership and Human Resources.

Most women (and men, for that matter) ranked formal Talent Management programs at the bottom of the list in terms of having an impact on their careers. Further, mentors for women were more likely have a lower organizational rank than men, and women were more likely than men to look outside their organizations for mentors.

“To advance, women need not just mentors, but sponsors – senior leaders who can advocate for them and help to open up career opportunities, often in an informal way. However, women are less likely than men to have sponsors as they work their way up the ranks,” said Burnett-Vachon.

Based on a core focus on changing philosophies and values, recommendations for change fall into three categories, which together make up an integrated approach to promoting the advancement of women in organizations: 

  • Governance: make women’s advancement a formal governance and performance priority for the board; ensure that policies, practices and measures are both in place and consistently applied; communicate the business case for advancing women throughout the organization.
  • Leadership development: Engage senior leaders to identify emerging women leaders; ensure there are senior women role models in the organization; provide high-potential and emerging women leaders with strategic assignments.
  • Human Resources Management: identify actual or perceived barriers to career development; seek out high-potential women from the earliest career stages and provide meaningful support; regularly review talent management practices and educate supervisors and managers on such processes; provide more family-friendly policies and encourage all employees (men and women) to take advantage of them.

Some Canadian organizations do follow best practices and get exceptional results, but they are not the norm. Without the involvement of top leaders who champion, monitor, and measure organizational progress, the number of women in the senior leadership ranks will not increase dramatically any time soon.

The report is based on a national survey of 876 women and men, along with in-depth interviews with 29 women (15 who have reached C-suite levels and 14 emerging leaders). Overall, 43 per cent of male managers and 68 per cent of female managers agree that organizations should try to increase the number of women in senior management. Male senior executives were the least likely of all management groups to agree that there is a need to increase the number of women in leadership roles. The vast majority of female senior executives (90 per cent) agreed or strongly agreed that organizations should try to increase the number of women in their senior ranks. But only 42 per cent of men agreed with that sentiment.

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