TORONTO — Nancy Tower knows just how important help from the highest echelons of corporate Canada can be for someone trying to break into the old boys' club.
She was a promising worker when she started at Halifax-based energy company Emera Inc. in 1997, but said a "gender-blind" CEO gave her some advice that helped her ascend to become the president and chief executive at subsidiary Tampa Electric.
He prodded her to get experience in all areas of the business, making her a more well-rounded executive candidate, even if it was lonely at times.
"I was chief financial officer of Emera for six years and when I would attend conferences, most of the CFOs would be male. I didn't have a lot of female colleagues," Tower said. "I think the utility business does tip toward more males in senior positions."
Despite the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements spurring a push for change across corporate Canada, data shows the country's most powerful companies haven't made much progress since Tower's ascent.
Women are still significantly underrepresented at the top ranks of Canada's most prominent and powerful companies. The figures are even lower for Black and Indigenous women and other marginalized groups.
A study from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found women accounted for about 10 per cent of named executive officers (NEOs) — a company's most senior and highly compensated positions — at about 250 businesses in both 2017 and 2018, the most recent years it looked at.
Comparing those numbers to previous years is complicated — a common difficulty when reporting about underrepresented populations because figures haven't been publicly available until recently and there is no standard methodology due to a wide range of data collection methods.
Still, the 10 per cent figure is in line with a 2018 Canadian Press analysis of TSX60 companies, which found less than eight per cent of the top paid management roles were held by women. For chief executive and chief financial officer, the number of women had actually decreased compared with five years earlier.
"The door to the C-Suite is locked for women. They can't get in the door … That situation hasn't changed at all," said David Macdonald, a senior economist at the CCPA, an independent and non-partisan think tank that researches social, economic and environmental justice issues.
"If they do manage to get in the door somehow, then they will get paid less no matter what job they take."
In each of the two years examined in the CCPA study, female named officers on average made 69 cents for every dollar made by their male counterparts. That represented an average pay gap of at least $900,000.
The situation can be even more bleak for people who are Indigenous, racialized or have disabilities. Studies say women from these groups are even less likely to be given top roles or paid as much as their male or white counterparts.
Osler, Hoskin and Harcourt LLP research from 2020 showed 32 per cent of companies had at least one executive officer who identifies as a visible minority. Out of the 205 companies that disclosed data, just two had at least one executive officer who is Indigenous and five had people with disabilities in top positions.
"When women make gains, it is not all women," said Sen. Ratna Omidvar. "I've been told the rising tide lifts all boats, but that is not what I see."
Omidvar pushed for amendments in 2018 to the Canada Business Corporations Act that would have required publicly traded companies to disclose the number of women and people from "equity-seeking groups" on their boards and in senior management.
Governance and diversity advocates supported similar measures as a way to encourage progress at a faster pace.
In 2015, the Ontario Securities Commission introduced a "comply-or-explain" requirement for TSX-listed companies to disclose annually how many women are on their board and in executive officer positions, and whether there are targets in place. If a company does not have a policy, it must explain why.
Since then, the share of board seats held by women has increased to 17 per cent from 11 per cent and there has been a decline in the share of boards with no women. Even so, almost half — 46 per cent — of companies still do not have any women in executive officer positions, according to the latest numbers from the OSC.
The Nasdaq stock exchange earlier this month filed a proposal with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for a comply-or-explain regulation that would require most listed companies to have at least two diverse directors or explain why they cannot meet the mandate.
Yet the proposed changes to Canadian law failed because critics argued businesses shouldn't be overregulated, Omidvar said.
"I was actually completely shattered, but this is politics," she said.
If the vote was held again, she is confident it would tilt in her favour. Not only are similar measures gaining traction, the country reached a "tipping point" after the May death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in U.S. police custody.
Floyd's death resulted in mass protests across the U.S. and Canada and prompted business leaders to pledge to do more to help underrepresented groups.
Manon Brouillette, the former chief executive and president of Quebecor Inc. subsidiary Videotron, said impostor syndrome — where people feel like they are inexperienced or don't belong in some jobs — plays a big role too.
"When I joined Videotron in 2004, I was the only executive woman at the table, but my (bigger) fear was that I was 10 years younger than other guys," said Brouillette, who spent almost 15 years at the company and now serves on boards for companies including the National Bank of Canada.
"A lot of women really want to be experts in something before doing it." Luckily for her, she said, "I'm not scared of failure, so I take more risk."
Brouillette prods other women to push for a higher salary or apply for new roles without feeling they must meet all the criteria.
Tower, who plans to retire next year, does the same thing, encouraging other women to replicate her methods and fight for equal compensation.
But companies aren't off the hook either. Brouillette recommends leaders avoid trying to appear "superhuman" and instead make workers feel they can reach out with any issue. Even something as simple as calling executives by their first name rather than a formal title can create positive change, Brouillette said.
"You have more balanced executive teams and the power is more shared in our economy now than 20 years ago, but still, the CEO sets the tone in the business, so it will all reflect on how women grow in that business."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 16, 2020.
Companies in this story: (TSX: EMA, TSX: QBR, TSX:NA)
Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press