The number of women in Canada's executive ranks has changed little over the last two decades, a report from the Conference Board of Canada said Wednesday.

Men are still more than twice as likely to hold a senior executive position than women are, the board said.

"Women have made great progress in many areas of society over the past 22 years, but not in the ranks of senior management positions," the Conference Board's president and CEO Anne Golden said. "Now that the rousing early days of feminism are behind us, perhaps we have become complacent about the success of women in senior management."

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The few women who rise to senior levels tend to get a lot of media coverage, which may give readers the false impression that barriers to women’s advancement are a thing of the past, the report warns.

In reality, scant progress has been made.

According to official government data,  women made up almost 48 per cent of the Canadian labour force in 2009. Yet only 0.32 per cent — 26,000 of more than 8 million working women — held senior management positions.

That figure has risen from the 15,000 level it was at in 1987, the baseline year for the Board's study. But the total number of women in the workforce has grown by a similar amount, so the percentage has changed little.

By contrast, of the 8.8 million men in Canada's workforce in 2009, 56,200 or 0.62 per cent were able to rise to the executive ranks.

Over the past two decades, men have consistently been two to three times more likely than women to hold senior management positions.

Best practices

The Conference Board report outlined a number of suggestions to help promote female executive development:

  • Use accountable search techniques—ensure female candidates are on all short lists.
  • Identify talent and provide succession planning initiatives.
  • Set up mentoring and coaching programs.
  • Offer job rotation opportunities.
  • Ensure ongoing measurement.
  • Create an inclusive work environment.
  • Avoid putting women in precarious positions without giving them the support and preparation needed to succeed – a woman’s failure in an executive role may be attributed to her gender rather than to the circumstances of the position.
  • Highlight role models and communicate success.
  • Ensure senior management support.

The gender gap is somewhat less wide among middle management ranks, but it is still large. In 2009, 911,000 men were working in middle management positions (over 10 per cent of all men employed) compared to 543,000 women (seven per cent of all women employed).

"Between 1987 and 2009, the proportion of women in middle management rose by about 4 per cent. At that rate, it will take approximately 151 years before the proportion of men and women at the management level is equal," Golden said.

This issue is not simply one of equality, as the report found there are all sorts of deleterious impacts to Canada's economy that are related to the dearth of female executives.

Companies themselves enjoy an increased availability of skilled employees, they see stronger employee engagement, and tend to have higher productivity.

A recent study of Fortune 500 companies found that those with the highest representation of female managers saw their return to shareholders outpace their rivals by more than a third.

"Increasing women’s representation at the senior level is not simply a matter of justice or fairness — although it is that," Golden said. "And it is not simply a 'women’s issue.' Companies that fail to integrate women’s perspectives into their high-level decision making risk losing market share, competitive advantage, and profits."

"We already know what to do," she said. "Now we simply need to do it."