Given the focus on women’s rights over the past year across multiple socioeconomic spheres from sexual harassment to pay equity to political engagement, it was no surprise the Before the Bell event marking International Women’s Day on March 8 was sold out. The panel, comprised of respected Canadian policy, political and business voices, discussed with moderators Catherine Clark and Susan Delacourt what it will take to realize Canada’s full economic potential with greater participation of women in industry. According to the 2016 Canadian Board Diversity Council Annual Report Card, women still hold only 21.6 percent of FP500 organization board seats, and while women-owned enterprises are growing, there are still barriers to success.
The conversation came a week after the release of the federal budget, which, for the first time, filtered program spending through a gender-based-analysis-plus framework. Highlights include money for a new centre for statistics focused on gender, money for groups that advocate for women, and changes to parental leave – but no new money for childcare.
For Ruth Vachon, president and CEO of Réseau des femmes d’affaires du Québec (Québec Business Women’s Network), what impressed her was the commitment to boost the share of federal procurement from women-led small and medium-sized businesses from 10 to 15 percent.
“We were expecting the Québec government would take the lead but it’s not the case,” said Vachon. “The federal government took the lead, and we were glad of that.”
Greg MacEachern, senior vice president of government relations, Proof Strategies, offered a reminder that budgets are also communications exercises.
“They communicated what impact on the economy women can have, do have, or will have,” said MacEachern.
As for whether governments need to get women onto corporate boards, Vassy Kapelos, the newly announced host of CBC’s Power & Politics, noted that there is an overlap between rules and cultural change.
“In Iceland, they have legislation that covers the public sector, and still very few CEOs are women, and there are very few women on boards in private companies,” said Kapelos, noting that change has been happening in Hollywood because the wage gap between male and female actors has been made public.
Vachon noted that while Crown corporations in Québec were legislated toward gender parity on their boards, the private sector has not budged, meaning that regulation could become necessary. Vachon also said that large corporations need to influence the market, which is why they need to engage on appointing more women directors.
When it comes to barriers women entrepreneurs face, Stephanie Karlovits, founder and CEO of EPIC Fitness + Lifestyle, said that it breaks down to three things.
“Funding has been a big one; support and protection, and growth,” said Karlovits, noting that her student debt was an obstacle to getting financing, and that she feels that she has more protection as a residential tenant than she does as a CEO when it comes to commercial disputes. She also laments the lack of support available for when she wants to take time off to have a family.
“It can’t just be a meritocracy and a fight to the death — we need to be supported,” said Karlovits.
Lesley Lawrence, senior vice president for Ontario of the Business Development Bank of Canada, noted that the budget set aside $1.4 billion for the BDC to finance women entrepreneurs. This builds on an initiative launched in 2015 to increase lending to majority-women owned businesses.
“This is obviously an aggressive target, but we can do it,” said Lawrence. “We have to work with partners like other financial institutions.”
Currently only 16 percent of businesses are women-owned, and in order to help reach more women, BDC plans to run a series of boot camps to help women entrepreneurs with financial literacy and skills. Lawrence said that she is also working with the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters’ committee on women in manufacturing.
“We’re really trying to move the needle on young women coming into manufacturing and skilled trades,” said Lawrence, noting that women make up less than 10 percent of the sector in Canada.
Catherine Decarie, senior vice president of corporate affairs and secretary of Export Development Canada, said that when it comes to women-led businesses in the export market, the statistical database lists only 1000 companies.
“Exporting companies are more profitable, they’re more resilient, they’re more sustainable longer-term to economic shock, and they’re more innovative,” said Decarie, which is why EDC hopes to help more women-led businesses into the export market, particularly by helping them to de-risk their first steps.
Decarie noted that one of the biggest challenges that EDC faces is that not enough women-owned export businesses know that they exist and can help. This is why the Crown corporation plans to focus on its web presence and boost its outreach in order to better target its training toward real-world challenges.
Both Decarie and Lawrence note that diverse companies that have more women in leadership roles, are more innovative and more profitable.
“Women are very focused on relationships, and we see that with the women entrepreneurs we deal with,” Lawrence said, adding that women in business value trust and loyalty and what it brings.
Lawrence also noted that women in mentoring positions help other women to engage, while Karlovits said that women in leadership positions encourage other employees to see themselves in the organization.