The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day on March 8 was “Each for Equal,” noting that an equal world is an enabled world, and calling on everyone to help forge a gender-equal world. The campaign stated that “equality is not a women’s issue, it’s a business issue,” and that gender equality is essential for economies and communities to thrive. Before the Bell hosted a panel of women from business and politics to examine the barriers that women continue to face in the workforce, and how they can break them and grow opportunities around the world.
“Let us accept that backlash is resistance to change,…It’s going to happen. It’s how we respond and rise above the voices that don’t want to see progress that really matters.”Hon. Maryam Monsef MP, Minister of Women and Gender Equality and Minister of Rural Economic Development
Oksana Kishchuk, analyst at Abacus Data, pointed to an RCB Economics study published for International Women’s Day showing that, as of 2018, women earn 42 percent of household income in Canada, as compared to 25.4 percent in 1976. Abacus’ own polling found that 75 percent of millennials believe they will see gender equality in their lifetime, but in that same study, only 36 percent of women felt optimistic about the opportunities available to them.
During the main panel with special guest host Susan Delacourt, Dr. Susan Black, president and CEO of The Conference Board of Canada, announced that they are conducting a study on whether the regulations around “comply or explain” toward reaching a target of 30 percent of women on corporate boards are working or not.
“The TSX-60, those big Canadian companies, they have hit 30 percent and that’s great news, but the proportion of women on boards is only 18 percent overall, and what’s more disturbing, almost two-thirds of the board seats that came open went to men,” said Black.
Black said one reason for that imbalance is that C-suite decision makers tend to fill seats based on their own social networks, and they tend to stick with people who look like them, and only the big companies have looked into ways to disrupt that. As well, Black says that many board directors have a very blinkered view in what they believe makes a good board member.
“I think we’re in another one of those phases where there’s a tipping point,” said Black. “Things like #MeToo, which have brought visibility to some of the things that women face in their lives, have had an impact, and I think the business case for diversity is very well documented and understood.”
Arlene Anderson, president and co-owner of the Original Maple Bat Corporation, which produces customized baseball bats, relayed some of the challenges of working in a male-dominated field, which include assumptions that she doesn’t know her own business.
“This last December, we went to San Diego to present at the baseball winter meetings to all of the equipment managers, and I looked out as we were presenting, and realized I was the only woman in the room,” said Anderson. “But they were hanging onto everything that we were saying, and a number of them came up afterward and said that they didn’t know I had it in me, but I had the best presentation.”
Jaqueline Ovens, women in trade investment program lead at Export Development Canada, said that currently only 16 percent of small and medium-sized enterprises are women-led, and of those, only 11 percent are exporting, which means that only two percent of exporters are women.
“The challenges that women face in exporting aren’t unique to women, and one of those is knowledge — you need to understand the markets you’re entering, the tariffs and regulations,” said Ovens. “The second element is connections, and this can be particularly challenging for women — in a lot of international markets, it can be daunting for women to enter into those markets because of gender biases and cultural differences, and accessing those connections.”
Ovens said that in a lot of cases, women entrepreneurs don’t want to ask for money, so it limits their ability to expand or scale their businesses. As well, the venture capital community rarely funds women-led businesses, in part because of a lack of women on the investor side of the table.
Lenore Zann, MP for Cumberland–Colchester, Nova Scotia, who has not only been a politician at both the provincial and federal levels for the past ten years but was an actor before that, noted that #MeToo has had such an impact in those two fields because of the magnitude of male chauvinism that exists within them. Zann noted that when she first signed a contract as an actor, she had to report her agent to the union because of the advances he made to her.
“In government, it’s still a boy’s club and they look after each other, and you’ve got to be loud and speak up,” said Zann. “In Ottawa, it’s better and they’ve maybe learned from the past, and they’re definitely trying and they’re open to women’s suggestions.”
She added that seeing women in positions of power will change things. “In the film and television industry, the only roles we were given in the eighties were murder victims,” said Zann. “The more we see women in positions of power, it plants the seeds in people’s minds.”
Maryam Monsef, Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Minister for Rural Economic Development, said that while things are changing, there is a lot of hard work that still needs to be done.
“Let us accept that backlash is resistance to change,” said Monsef. “It’s going to happen. It’s how we respond and rise above the voices that don’t want to see progress that really matters.”
Monsef says that her advice to women who want to get into politics is to both learn French, as well as to surround themselves with people who will have their back.
Watch the full edition of Before the Bell here.