People First HR Services

Firms need to develop talented female managers

Colleen Coates

Men are still more than twice as likely to hold a senior management position as their female colleagues — a ratio that has not changed much within the past two decades despite the fact that women have made tremendous progress. Those who have achieved a greater gender balance in senior management ranks are to be applauded.

According to a 2009 report from the Conference Board of Canada, women make up almost 48 per cent of the talent pool and yet, only 0.32 per cent hold executive positions. It’s concerning that women are still significantly underrepresented in the upper echelon of the workforce. Although most organizations say they support diversity and the development of future leaders, women in top leadership roles seem to still be the exception, not the rule.

Giving women the opportunity to develop their careers and create potential for advancement not only enhances a company’s leadership capability, it makes smart business sense.

It is well-known that even as boards of directors of major corporations and small business strive to create gender diversity within their board, that this is a challenging task given the low numbers of female executives who have the senior level experience needed to provide advice and guidance at the board level.

Research cited in the Harvard Business Review found that Fortune 500 firms with the highest percentage of female executives significantly outperformed most within their respective industries. This is only logical, as fostering diversity in management leads to improved efficiency, effectiveness and performance of the entire team, coupled with the fact that women bring valuable skills to leadership roles that are complementary to those of their male colleagues.

One of the largest barriers seen in the advancement of women continues to be work/life effectiveness, which is a shared responsibility between the organization and the individual. However, organizations that make this issue a priority and respond by creating a balanced and empathetic work environment can greatly influence their female managers to stay and advance their careers.

Without a doubt, female and male employees face different work/life issues, and this must be addressed. Among the typical challenges women in management positions meet:

— Many executive women believe they are not taken as seriously as their male colleagues. Whether this is a reality or perception, it often leads to the devotion of extra time and effort, often at the sacrifice of their personal health, to meet demands.

— In male-dominated environments, many executive women say that power and competition are stronger influences at higher levels, leaving them feeling out of the loop and less influential.

— Women still carry the predominant share of care-giving and household responsibilities. Therefore, if they have dependent children at home and/or partners with equally demanding careers, last-minute evening or travel commitments can be difficult to make and time away from work during the day for doctor appointments and so forth can weigh heavily on their shoulders.

So, what can organizations do to better support female (and male) executives to develop high-performing leaders? It starts by understanding some of the issues that need to be resolved, then making a commitment to show leadership on work/life balance. For example:

— Find out how your staff defines work/life effectiveness by asking targeted questions in your next employee survey or third-party interviews. How large of a role does the issue play in recruitment, retention and job satisfaction? Do your expectations and current policies align with the needs of your people?

— Monitor how workplace health and wellness benefits are used. Are there many stress-related complaints linked to absenteeism, prescription drug costs, or workplace injury and illness?

— Consider how much flexibility and control employees have regarding their own work and life choices. Do senior staff and executives have opportunities to achieve a better balance?

— Set the tone by demonstrating the link between work/life balance, job satisfaction and the organization’s overall success. This might include not calling last-minute meetings late in the day; respecting executives’ personal time outside of work; encouraging flexibility inside established working hours; leaving the office at a reasonable time; supporting non-work activities that benefit the individual, the community and the organization.

It is imperative that the development of talented women managers continues as it leads to a higher probability that the organization can meet its performance goals. Having participated as part of the executive team, I can say with certainty that by eliminating some of the work/life issues that put female executives in precarious positions and instead, giving them the support they need to succeed, organizations can greatly reduce the chance of their future female leaders leaving to find better advancement opportunities and professional development programs somewhere else.

— With reporting by Barbara Chabai


Colleen Coates, CHRP, CCP, is a practice leader with People First HR Services Ltd. She can be contacted at



The Conference Board of Canada: In the Pipeline or On the Sidelines: Is Your Leadership Development Working For Women? and Balance At The Top: Encouraging Work-Life Effectiveness for Executives


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 7, 2012