Growth in the number of women who advance to the executive ranks at Canada's largest companies has slowed to a crawl in the past two years, a major study has found.

Female advocacy group Catalyst released a report Thursday that tracks, among other things, the gender breakdown of employees at 468 member companies of the Financial Post 500. The group has published the annual report since 1998.

'If you start to see it as one versus the other, you miss the point' —TD Bank CEO Ed Clark on workplace diversity

"At Catalyst, we believe that what gets measured gets done," said Deborah Gillis, a senior vice-president with the group.

While it shows slight progress through the years, the report paints a damning picture overall — one in which women are dramatically under-represented in Canadian board rooms.

The percentage of women holding senior officer positions increased less than one percentage point over two years, from 16.9 per cent in 2008 to 17.7 per cent in 2010. Further, female senior officers held 6.2 per cent of top earner positions in 2010 — up less than one percentage point from 5.6 per cent in 2008.

In both years, a full 30 per cent of the largest companies in Canada did not have a single woman in their executive ranks.

Crown corporations continue to have the highest representation of women senior officers compared to other types of companies, the report found — 27 per cent, versus 14.3 per cent in publicly traded companies last year.

460linamar-hasenfratz

Linamar Corporation CEO Linda Hasenfratz is shown with her father, chairman Frank, at the company's AGM in May. The former is one of the few female CEOs of a major Canadian company. (Mike Cassese/Reuters)

"Canadian businesses are vastly underutilizing talented women, even though women are the engine of our economies," Gillis said. "As organizations refuel and retool, it is in their best interest to ensure that this important segment of the employee base is developed for leadership positions."

"Time is up for ‘give it time'," Gillis said, though she added that the solution is not simple tokenism. Research indicates that on average, companies with more women senior officers outperform those with fewer.

That agrees very much with what one of Canada's largest companies has found in its efforts to reduce the homogeneity of its executive ranks.

"If you start to see it as one versus the other, you miss the point," TD Bank CEO Ed Clark said of the bank's efforts to promote more women in a recent CBC interview.

 "By framing it as a people development issue, you don't get this zero-sum game; everybody wins."

TD Bank is one of the few Canadian companies that actually employs more women than men. But that preponderance hasn't yet translated into a plurality of women in the C-suite.

"The real issue is: How do you have more women in your feeder group and not end up in your executive group with more women than men?" he said.