Lost in Tuesday's news that Canada's 100 top-paid CEOs made 193 times what the average worker did in 2015 is the fact only two members of that elite club are women.

The lack of diversity reflected in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives' list may seem hard to believe, but not so for the experts who've been studying the problem. In fact, a recent report by consultancy Rosenzweig & Co. found that among the 100 biggest companies in Canada, only eight have female CEOs.

The numbers don't look any better when other executive roles such as chief financial officer and chief technology officer are included. Of 526 such positions at Canada's biggest companies, only 42 are held by women.

"The obvious explanation, sadly, is that there still is discrimination happening," managing partner Jay Rosenzweig said in an interview Tuesday. "It's either overt or covert hostility."

The two highest-paid female CEOs on the left-leaning think-tank's annual list are Linda Hasenfratz of Linamar Corp., who was compensated a total of $14.2 million in 2015, and Dawn Farrell of TransAlta Corp., who earned $4.5 million.

Trans Alta 20150729

TransAlta Corp. CEO Dawn Farrell earned $4.5 million in 2015. (Larry MacDougal/Canadian Press)

Some critics argue the wage gap between the sexes disappears when factors such as age, experience and education levels are factored in. 

But in a recent global study, workplace consultancy Catalyst looked at men and women who received MBA degrees and compared how much they earned in their first job out of school, before any skill differences might have emerged.

The research found even among grads with identical education levels, women with MBAs in Canada earned an average of $8,200 less than men did in their first jobs in the corporate world.

"Think about that starting point," Catalyst president and CEO Deborah Gillis said, "and that just grows over time."

She says that gap early on goes a long way toward explaining why even Canada's highest-paid CEOs still bump up against a glass ceiling that keeps them more than $170 million below what Valeant CEO Michael Pearson, No. 1 on the list, got paid in 2015.

Lack of early opportunities 

Women aren't being given the same opportunities early on in their careers, so it's much more difficult to develop the skills and experience to rise to the C-suite as consistently, she says.

"You want to be building a sustainable pipeline of female talent."

On the bright side, she says she sees the groundwork being laid to fix the problem in the near future.

Various levels of government and regulators have implemented policies that encourage hiring and promoting more women. The most popular example is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's gender-balanced cabinet — the first in Canadian history.

Liberal Cabinet 20151104

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould is congratulated by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after being sworn in at Rideau Hall on Nov. 4, 2015. Trudeau's cabinet has an equal number of men and women. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Gillis says this influence is starting to trickle into corporate Canada. She cites the growth of the "30 per cent club," which calls for companies to make at least 30 per cent of their board members women by 2019.

Since launching in 2015, 110 of Canada's biggest companies have committed to meeting the target.

"We're seeing proactive action from companies who are really taking the issue seriously," she said. "I hope we will see accelerated change because companies have made that shift from asking why [the gender gap happens] to how [to fix it]." 

Diversity pays

The most vexing part of the problem, Rosenzweig says, is making knuckle-dragging companies shake the notion that diversity will cost them money in the long run — the reality is quite the opposite. 

"There's reams of data that shows the more diversity around the leadership table, the greater the business results," Rosenzweig said. "In addition to being a moral issue, there's a tremendous business case to level the playing field."