Insights & Analysis

April 6, 2022

Gender Equity in Alberta: COVID has brought challenges—but has also shown progress and opportunity: Part Two

In the spirit of this year’s International Women’s Day, we partnered with Axis Connects to assess the state of gender equity in Alberta and to determine what is needed to further progress.

In Part One of our commentary, we looked at three key areas to gain a better understanding of the impact COVID has had on gender equity in Alberta: employment and workforce participation; household responsibilities; and leadership and representation.

We found that, amidst the challenges that women faced due to COVID, the pandemic has also shed light on both the progress that has been made and the gender disparities that still exist.

This presents us with a timely chance to learn from our shortcomings and further progress toward creating meaningful and lasting change for gender equity—something that, as mentioned previously, benefits both women and men alike.

Therefore, in this second commentary, we set out to address what is needed for women to fully participate in Alberta’s economy and reach their full potential to build a stronger province.

While we acknowledge that there are many issues impacting gender equity, our focus is on key areas that create barriers for women in the workplace. As we emerge from the pandemic, we can seize the opportunity to improve outcomes for women in the workplace, and, in turn, improve overall societal and economic equality.

Specifically, in this commentary we lay out:

  1. Factors that continue to drive gender disparities in the workplace across Canada
  2. Initiatives that exist to address these disparities, and
  3. What is still needed to improve outcomes for women in our province as we emerge from the pandemic

Here is what we found.

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Factors that continue to drive gender disparities in the workplace across Canada

A number of underlying issues contribute to the continued inequity of women in the workforce in terms of pay, progression, and leadership in Alberta and, likewise, across the country, weighing on our province and country’s potential.  

Furthermore, although for the most part women in Alberta who left or lost work during the pandemic have returned to the labour force, as we noted in Part One, the consequences on women’s career growth due to their prolonged absence, on average, compared to men are not yet fully known.   

Continued gender inequities—along with the threat of lost progress—mean that understanding the dominant barriers that impact women’s ability to fully participate in the economy is essential to setting a path of long-term economic growth and prosperity. Specifically, this understanding can be used to better inform organizations and initiatives that already exist, and to identify gaps and present opportunities for new ideas to emerge.

Three of the biggest barriers for women in work include: 1) systemic barriers and biases, 2) a lack of existing visibility in leadership roles, and 3) inadequate sponsorship and mentorship opportunities.

Systemic barriers and biases

Inherent and structural biases hinder women’s experience and equality in the workplace. This includes things like gender stereotyping, sexual harassment, and work-life policies that disproportionately benefit men.

Addressing subconscious biases and creating better workplace environments is by no means a new idea. For decades, both the public and private sector in Canada (and in many countries around the world) have identified this as a main factor contributing to inequality and set out to impact change.

Yet dismantling deep-seated systemic barriers continues to be a major challenge.

Inherent biases are in many ways deeply imbedded in our society, and this can be difficult for any one employer to overcome over night. For instance, subconscious stereotypes of “brilliance” play into performance ratings and benefit men. This is true even in situations where men and women are assessed based on the same scripted presentation. Interestingly, what would seem to be minor technicalities such as the scale of the employer’s performance rating (e.g., from 0 – 6 versus 0 – 10) influence by just how much men are out-rated compared with women. Likewise, this bias also affects how women are treated: women are more likely to have their competence questioned, especially as they progress into more senior level roles.

Meanwhile, corporate cultures often encourage evening meetings and weekend get togethers and provide vague or insufficient support for parental leave and return. This makes it impossible for many women—particularly those with children—to stand on equal footing to male counterparts. For example, women are often overlooked upon return from parental leave. Many report feeling isolated. Many also say managers have lowered expectations and decreased their responsibilities. A lack of support in getting up to speed upon return limits a woman’s potential and can erode confidence in herself.

A real crux of the problem moving forward is that men are more likely to believe that opportunities in the workplace are equal and therefore less likely to see a need for change. With so few women on company boards or leadership teams, these issues carry on unknown or unaddressed.

As many organizations in Alberta return to the office after over two years of remote working, and with many women re-entering the workplace after a hiatus, these issues should be especially top of mind. Though it might look a little different for every organization, businesses can establish new norms and better workplace cultures to improve everyday work experiences of women not just for the next couple of months as more individuals get back to work in-person–but for the long term.

A lack of existing visibility in leadership roles

Female leaders play a critical role in inspiring and promoting other women. Yet, women remain under-represented in leadership positions. This is a problem because what leadership “looks like” affects our individual dreams and ambitions, from childhood through adult life. If women don’t see other women at the top, it is harder to imagine this role for themselves, and even harder for women of colour. This lack of representation therefore stunts individual pursuits.

This is exacerbated by another problem. Recent research shows a previous rejection from a top role is more likely to stop women than men from throwing their hat in the ring later on. At the same time, it is worth remembering that implicit biases and gender discrimination, as described above, similarly play into evaluations of top positions like board positions and C-Suite roles. The strong default to select individuals similar to us—especially when decisions need to be made quickly—means women are likely to see rejection from male superiors often. Without leading female models to encourage them to keep throwing their hat in the ring, it is easy to see why progress remains slow.  

The past several decades has seen a global movement to not only increase women’s participation in the labour force but towards equal representation in positions of leadership. This is essential, because, in addition to inspiring the next generation of leadership, women are known to advocate for gender specific issues, improving conditions for women generally.

Nonetheless, prior to the pandemic, although female representation in director positions in Alberta was on the rise—up to 17.2%—it was still well below the 30% threshold research suggests is needed to have the voices, concerns and ideas of women truly represented. This also means that, by and large, leadership still looks very male (not to mention very white). This is especially true among Alberta’s most valuable industries—oil and gas, and mining—where women hold just 13% of board positions.

Inadequate sponsorship and mentorship opportunities

Women are less likely to have a sponsor or mentor—i.e. someone who supports their professional growth and progress—than their male counterparts. The impact that both sponsors and mentors have on the success of an individual’s career cannot be overstated. Without the connections of influential individuals to expose their skills and abilities, many women are not championed to move up in an organization in the same way as men. This is crucial because, though the gender confidence gap is mostly a myth, women are less likely to toot their own horns.

One problem is that informal socializing among and across networks is a common stepping stone to developing sponsorships or mentorships. Being socially involved with senior leaders generates natural sponsors and expands an individual’s network, yet women see fewer of these opportunities due to the nature of sponsorship and, unfortunately, a discomfort among men.

In fact, the percentage of men who report being uncomfortable mentoring women is growing. Men are uncomfortable for a number of reasons: how it will look to others, a preference to connect with the same gender, and fears of sexual harassment issues. A survey by LeanIn found that senior men are 12 times more hesitant to meet with a junior woman than a junior man; 9 times more hesitant when it comes to business travel; and 6 times more hesitant with respect to work dinners. Women are therefore left out of important opportunities for networking, mentorship, and career growth.

Furthermore, it is likely that, over the course of the pandemic, informal chats at the water cooler were missed, and formal ones did not have the same impact if done virtually. Overall, this is likely to weigh more heavily on the career trajectories of women in the coming years. As a result, continuing to shine a light on this issue will therefore be more crucial than ever.

Initiatives that exist to address these disparities

Each issue discussed above merits a full report on their own. But our goal is simply to shine a light on some of the key issues that impact progress for gender equity and highlight initiatives that already exist right here in our province to address them.

Encouragingly, numerous initiatives have emerged to address issues of gender equity, diversity, and inclusion. In fact, the movement towards achieving gender equality in Alberta has been gaining steam for many years now.

There are now over 100 organizations in the province dedicated to this work, many of which have emerged in just the past 5 years alone. These include a broad range of organizations: from not-for-profits and charities to industry groups and associations to consulting firms and arms-length government bodies.  

Systemic barriers and biases

Women’s participation in leadership roles

Sponsorship and mentorship opportunities

  • Women’s Economic Council Alberta: Offers a ‘Her Mentor’ program to support newcomer women and a ‘Think Women’ project to support women’s voices in the post-pandemic recovery planning
  • Chic Geek | Women in Technology: Provides mentorship, community building and career pathing to help keep more women in the tech sector
  • Canada Powered by Women: Connects women across the country to talk about current issues that impact their lives
  • Women in Capital Markets: Facilitates networking opportunities and professional development programs for women to grow their careers in Calgary finance
  • Young Women in Energy: Provides mentorship, a speaker series, panel discussions and career opportunities for young women working in the energy sector

To be sure, this list is far from full or exhaustive. But, nevertheless, it highlights the awareness of, and interest in, tackling these issues in Alberta—work which will become even more imperative as we recover from the pandemic and set a path for a more equitable, and prosperous, future. You can download a PDF version of the above, here.

What is still needed to improve outcomes for women in our province as we emerge from the pandemic

While it is extraordinary to see the breadth and depth of work underway across the province, more may be needed to ensure long-term equity and meaningful inclusion for women.

One of the most important first steps we see is in tracking and assessing progress over time. At the moment, Alberta is not systematically tracking progress on gender equity. This is a big miss. 

There are two parts of this initial step. After first identifying what information is needed to best understand the state of gender equity in the province, we will need to identify what information is already available, and from where, and what additional information is still needed.

Now is an opportune time to advocate for any key pieces that are missing or, say, available within individual businesses but not aggregated across the province. First, there is funding already set aside in the Alberta budget of an additional $15 million over the next three years for improved labour market information and data analysis. Within this, there is an opportunity to focus on issues of gender equity in the labour force. Secondly, there is a clear fit with the ambitions of the federal government to support women and gender equality nationally, and may be opportunities for new or improved data across provinces to this end.  

In the meantime, it is essential to start tracking progress based on the information we do have. Even simple—but foundational—measures like labour force participation of women of different ages, races, and ethnicities, compared with their male counterparts, is a good place to start.

Of course, this is just step one. What happens next should stem directly from what this reveals: Where are the biggest gaps? On what issues is more information or research needed? How can policy be used to help? And so forth. Furthermore, it should recognize the burgeoning ecosystem of organizations already engaged in this work by calling on this diverse group of stakeholders—along with business and government leaders across Alberta—to build understanding and shape better outcomes.

Conclusion

The reality is the same barriers that impacted women in Alberta before the pandemic are still here today and, in some cases, their impact has been or could be worse than before. Nonetheless, there is a growing powerhouse of organizations across Alberta seeking to actively champion women and enable progress. Given the continued gender inequity in terms of pay, progression, and leadership, this work is far from sufficient or complete.

We see growing interest and ongoing need as an opportunity to measure progress and highlight gaps with the ultimate goal of propelling the progress toward a shared vision for Alberta: that, regardless of gender, all Albertans are empowered to develop and use their full range of skills, abilities, and ingenuity and grow their potential over their life course. For the benefit of individual Albertans—and the province at large.

Our work is far from over. You can look out for more from this continued collaboration soon. In the meantime, we hope to see even more collaboration and knowledge sharing across this budding ecosystemand with business and governmentto build the province-wide momentum necessary to achieve gender equity in Alberta.  

This piece was written in partnership with Axis Connects | Advancing Women in Calgary

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In the spirit of truth, reconciliation, and respect, we honour and acknowledge the lands upon which we live and work as guests, including the traditional territories of the First Nations in Treaties 6, 7, and 8 and the citizens of the Metis Nation of Alberta. We thank the First Peoples of this land, which we now call Alberta, for their generations of stewardship of the land, and we seek to walk together in the spirit of truth and reconciliation to build a shared future for all in Alberta.

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