Early in Shannan Corey’s pension career, many of the boards she worked with were dominated by men over the age of 50.

Corey, now executive director of the Saskatchewan Pension Plan, recalls one particular board meeting she attended when her company’s actuary, also male, wasn’t able to attend. “I was in my 30s and still an actuarial student at the time, but I had worked on the file for a while and was very familiar with this particular client. I showed up at the board meeting with another female colleague and, although we both knew their file really well, the instant perception was that we couldn’t bring value to the meeting and the board wanted to shut down the meeting.”

Read: Women in Canada’s benefits, pension industries talk gender diversity

Corey and her colleague convinced the board to give them a shot and ultimately won them over. Once the client realized they knew their stuff — and that their services came at a lower price — they asked Corey and her colleague to take over the file. “In my experience, women have to work harder to gain credibility,” she says.

In her career, she’s had to seek out male mentors because it was difficult to find senior women in leadership positions. “I was very fortunate to find [men] who really supported and embraced women in the industry.”

She advises women in the benefits and pension industries to seek out mentors, regardless of gender, who they can learn from and who match their values. And, as they develop in their careers and experiences, they should, in turn, reach out to others and become mentors themselves.

Building gender equity in the workplace

Donna Mathieu, vice-president and chief investment officer and treasurer of Nav Canada Corp., began her career as a summer student at a small accounting practice, but when she found out she was being paid less than another male student doing the same job, she quit.

However, she explained her reasoning and the firm hired her back right away at the higher salary. “I know a lot of women don’t have that opportunity to quit their jobs and stand up for what they believe in, but that was an early lesson for me. . . . You have to stand up for what you believe in — your integrity is everything, so you need to align your actions and your drive behind your beliefs and values.”

Read: Canadian women earned 23% less than men in 2020: report

Pay equity by the numbers

• Women are significantly more likely to have a pre-tax salary below $50,000, while men are significantly more likely to be earning $50,000 or more.

• Women earned an average pre-tax salary of $51,352 in 2019, while men reported an average pre-tax salary of $67,704 — a gap of 24%.

• In 2019, men received an average of $7,646 in additional compensation (bonuses, profit-sharing, etc.), while women received an average of $3,250.

• Men are more likely to be a manager or executive in their workplace than women — 28% of male respondents compared to 19% of women.

49% of millennials said they’re likely to switch employers if they were to find out their organization isn’t achieving pay equity.

ADP Canada Co. survey, 2020

Over the last several years, Nav Canada has focused in on diversity, equity and inclusion as one of the company’s core values, says Mathieu. It has also seen a sizeable increase in the number of women at its board and senior leadership levels.

In addition, the company’s pension plan has adopted a responsible investing policy that supports board diversity through its proxy voting practices and, when hiring investment managers, the organization reviews how prospective managers are approaching DEI within their firms.

Karin Adams, TMX Group Ltd.’s vice-president of talent and total rewards, has seen a lot of progress within the financial services space with respect to gender equity. “If you look back over the last 10 years, the representation at senior leadership levels, as well as on boards, has grown exponentially. That being said, it’s a far cry from equity. In Canada, it’s more likely around the 20 to 30 per cent mark for female representation on boards. There’s strong representation of women as a collective, but as you go up the hierarchy to elevated positions, the number drops dramatically. While there’s been a lot of conversation around this topic, the progress seems to be slow.”

Read: ‘More needs to be done’ to increase number of women on boards: report

Female voices at the table are important for role-modelling, she says. “It’s one thing to be told that an organization is diverse or promotes the professional development of women, but if you don’t see it across the top and you can’t look across senior leadership teams or a board and see yourself in that representation, including racialized and intersectional backgrounds — until you see those women at the table, many won’t believe it’s possible for them.”

As important as it is to start the discussion, it’s just as important to see the action behind the words and intentions, says Adams. Until more women of all backgrounds fill seats at the proverbial table, progress will still be stalled, along with the belief that women can achieve those same marks.

“Diversity is bigger than just demographics. It’s diversity in thought and lived experiences because that’s what informs perspectives. That’s what you want at the table — you want different perspectives, challenging perspectives — and you won’t get that unless you have a makeup of lived experiences that they can bring to the table.”

In order to achieve progress in this area, it’s critical for men to be allies in the gender equity movement, says Ivana Zanardo, vice-president of plan operations at the Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan. “Having diversity is key to building a successful organization, but without men being supportive, it would be very difficult for women to achieve it on our own.”

Read: TSX-listed companies making little progress raising diversity on boards, executive teams: study

Gender representation in corporate Canada

• Among 586 Canadian companies disclosing the number of women directors on their boards (4,599 board seats collectively), women held 21.5% of the total seats in 2020.

• During the same period, women represented 31.5% of total board seats among S&P/TSX 60 companies (593 seats and 53 members).

• Of the board seats held by women on the broader S&P/TSX composite index (1,893 seats collectively), female representation accounted for 28.3% of the total.

• Among 526 companies disclosing the percentage of women in CEO positions, an average of 17.1% of these positions are held by women.

Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP report, 2020

As part of the HOOPP’s corporate focus on diversity and inclusion, it has a number of employee resources groups that supports its internal efforts in these areas. In particular, its group Making HERstory is focused on supporting equity for women in the workplace and is co-sponsored by Tim Shortill, the pension fund’s chief operating officer.

“I think it’s important for men to hear firsthand some of the challenges that women encounter and it’s also important for women to see that their male colleagues are supportive,” says Zanardo.

Creating a post-pandemic “she-covery”

The coronavirus pandemic has raised a host of additional challenges, says Corey, and she hopes employers can offer flexibility to those affected by the real-world changes it’s brought to the traditional workplace.

“I think COVID has resulted in a loss of equity because everybody has their own personal situation that they’ve now had to factor into their work-life balance — and working from home has meant something very different from household to household, whether caring for aging parents or young children.”

Indeed, in the wake of pandemic-induced lockdowns that forced schools and childcare facilities to close, the resulting blurring of work and personal lives forced many women to leave the workforce to meet their family needs. Women’s participation in the workforce dipped to 55 per cent for the first time since the mid-1980s, according to an April 2020 report by the Royal Bank of Canada.

Read: Women considering downshifting, leaving careers due to pandemic: report

Adams believes interventions — whether it’s emergency childcare, training or other supports — designed to help keep women in the workforce are great, but she also wants more companies to focus on what they can do for men to culturally shift the balance and some of the attitudes toward gender norms and domestic responsibilities. At an organizational level, she’d like to see the normalization of programs like paternity leave and flexible work schedules for men to cultivate that shift in balance.

One of the pandemic’s silver linings is the shift in attitudes and approaches on workplace policies, she points out, noting employers are realizing they can still keep up productivity while promoting a more flexible approach to how and when people get their work done. “Whether it’s a single- or dual-parent household, there’s always going to be competing demands and priorities, so employers giving flexibility to staff to set a daily schedule that works for them and their families is a no-brainer, from my perspective.”

To prevent women from falling further behind, Adams suggests employers ensure bias related to the pandemic is removed from the performance management cycle, the pay cycle or bonus and performance ratings. At TMX, discussions are underway about providing a tool kit for managers that will help them strip out areas of bias when examining performance in cases where female employees may have had to step back to accommodate additional domestic responsibilities, focusing on quality of output versus hours worked. Similarly, the organization is providing managers with additional guidance on the performance assessment process and resulting pay opportunities to reflect potential and what they can contribute, rather than solely on what may have happened during the pandemic.

Read: Workplace mental-health training on the rise: Sanofi survey

The HOOPP has piloted mental-health training for managers so they can help employees struggling to maintain a work-life balance, says Zanardo, suggesting employers provide additional internal programs that support employees’ mental health and wellness. “As an example, at HOOPP we’re fortunate that we have a lot of support for employees taking leaves of absence to be able to take care of family obligations without the fear of any repercussions.”

Stella Yu, senior vice-president of total rewards at Citigroup Inc., believes flexible working will help to establish the “she-covery,” noting the bank is adopting a hybrid work model in the post-pandemic work environment. “I think this is so important, especially for employees with young kids or for older employees who have elder-care responsibilities.”

Shaping a nationwide childcare strategy

When Yu settled in Montreal 20 years ago, Quebec’s childcare system proved life-changing for her family. With a pre-school aged daughter, she was paying $7 a day for childcare. Without affordable options, she says she doesn’t think she’d have been able to complete her masters of business administration and start her career in the timeframe in which she did.

Hopefully, versions of Quebec’s government-supported program will be a reality for other working parents across Canada soon. In the federal government’s 2021 budget, it proposed a national community-based childcare system, pledging to invest up to $30 billion over the next five years toward creating a national strategy that would lower the average cost of nationally regulated childcare to $10 a day by 2025/26. As of press time, British Columbia, Manitoba and Nova Scotia were on board.

Read: Federal budget highlights national childcare system, extension of pandemic subsidies

Key Takeaways

• The presence of female voices at the leadership table is important because it fosters diversity of thought, a vital component to achieving success within an organization.

• Companies must re-think annual processes, such as performance management, pay cycle or bonus ratings to strip away any bias related to the pandemic, which saw many women stepping back from their roles to look after family obligations.

• Employer flexibility and hybrid work agility is key to building the “she-covery.”

“I’m really happy to hear the federal government is taking action in this area because I’ve experienced firsthand the importance of having childcare,” says Yu. “It’s so important to have the support in order to keep women and men at work.”

Amy Wong, section manager of benefits investments at Bruce Power Ltd., says the proposed system is a step in the right direction, highlighting that flexibility is crucial to keeping women in the workforce. However, she notes there’s still plenty of negotiations and planning required to get all provinces on board.

“Given what I saw as a parent using daycare, there are a lot of women working in that industry. I have the ability to drop my daughter off at 7am, but what if one of the early childcare education [professionals] working at that daycare has a child? How much flexibility is there to ensure that she is supported as well? So I think there’s still a long way to goon this front.”

In the meantime, many companies, such as Citi, have stepped up during the pandemic and offered emergency childcare supports, but Yu would like to see more partnerships between employers and third-party private sector emergency childcare and tutoring companies.

“Right now, we have emergency day-care support, which we’re thinking of expanding in terms of the days and we’re exploring other services to help support our employees in other areas, such as elder care.”

Read: National childcare program ‘first step’ in getting women back to work: expert

At a recent town hall, Jane Fraser, Citi’s chief executive officer, said she’s frequently asked if women can have it all. Her answer was, “Yes, they can, but sometimes they can’t have it all at the same time.” This resonated with Yu, especially over the last 18 months as many women struggled to maintain a work-life balance amid the demands of work and personal obligations. “I think the pandemic gave us a lot of appreciation for women’s roles in society at work and at home.”

She says companies that recognize there’s no longer a clear line between work and personal life and have embraced flexibility at work are delivering the message they value the diversity of their employee population and are willing to do their part for staff.

Lauren Bailey is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.