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How to recruit and retain more women

Women make up almost half of Canada’s workforce. We must do more to engage them by creating inclusive workplaces that work for everyone.

Published on

March 7, 2023


It’s high time we retire that well-worn cliché, “Can women have it all?”

As we saw with the recent global backlash over the now infamous BBC News headline, “Jacinda Ardern resigns: Can women really have it all?” women don’t need to prove anymore that they can be ambitious and have families. They can and they do.

To me, it’s less about whether women can balance work and family, and more about how we can enable all workers to do so. The better question, then, is, “How can we create inclusive workplaces where we can all ‘have it all’?”

I’m a huge proponent of equity, a mentor of women in business and a frequent speaker on the topic of advancing women’s careers (including most recently on a panel hosted by The Honest Talk).

And yet, with every study that is released, every panel discussion on gender equity that I participate in and every new article about women’s empowerment I read, it still hits me: we’re leaving too many talented women behind.

Women are still less likely to be promoted, they’re underrepresented at the senior leadership table and, as we saw during the pandemic, they’re often among the first to be let go.

Why should we care? According to the recently released 2023 Ontario Economic Report, among Ontario’s employers, the labour shortage was the second-most cited reason (64%) for pessimism when it comes to the province’s economic outlook. And since women make up almost half of Canada’s workforce, we must do more to engage them—and every talented Canadian—by creating inclusive workplaces that work for everyone, women and men, employers and employees alike.

Our economic recovery depends on it. In fact, an often-cited report by McKinsey estimated that, by 2026, Canada could add $150 billion to its annual GDP by supporting women’s participation in the workforce, and RBC estimates that having equal numbers of women and men participating in the labour market would lift our economic output by about $100 billion per year.

The pandemic wake-up call

Much has been written about the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on working women, and for me, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce report The She-Covery Project really drove it home. Some key findings that struck me: in 2020, women between the ages of 25 and 54 lost more than twice as many jobs as men, and women’s labour force participation rate fell to its lowest level in thirty years.

There are many reasons for this disparity. For example, more women work in the sectors that were the most heavily impacted by the pandemic (i.e., hospitality, tourism, retail, social services etc.). And even before the pandemic, women were almost four times more likely than men to assume the role of caregiver (78% vs. 22%), so of course, more women had to quit their jobs when work and home life collided during the pandemic.

Where we are today

Since the height of the pandemic (or, more aptly, the depths), prime-aged women (aged 25-54) across Canada have seen their labour force participation rate rebound and even surpass pre-pandemic levels, driven in part by our persistent labour shortage. According to the January 2023 figures from Statistics Canada, the employment rate for this group hit 82.2%, the highest since 1976.

This is good news for sure. But working women still lag far behind their male peers when it comes to pretty much every other success metric.

  • They earn less (about 89 cents for every dollar that men make, on average).
  • They’re promoted less often, occupying just under one-third of senior leadership roles overall, a figure that has not moved much since the late 90s. Today, only around 10% of Canada’s top 100 publicly traded companies have women in executive roles. And, according to The Prosperity Project’s 2023 report, the pandemic made it worse. The report found that the representation of women at the senior management level and in the pipeline to senior management have both decreased (2.8 percentage points and 11.9 percentage points, respectively) since 2021.
  • And when it comes to unpaid caregiving and household work, even though gains were made during the pandemic when men took on more of this work, women today still do the lion’s share of both.

When faced with challenges like these, I always try to think of the flipside: the opportunities.

  • How can we recruit more women in high-demand, high-paying sectors like construction, IT and engineering, which tend to be disproportionately male-oriented?
  • How can we retain more women, supporting—and promoting—them through every stage of their careers?
  • How can we support caregivers (both men and women), so they can better balance work and family life? McKinsey found that one in three women, and 60% of mothers with young children, spend five or more hours a day on housework and caregiving—almost another full-time job. As they say, something’s gotta give.

As a woman, a mother, an entrepreneur and someone in the business of building careers, I’m particularly drawn to the questions of recruitment and retention. Here are some suggestions.

How to recruit more women

  • Make job ads more attractive to women (more inclusive, less detailed, fewer must-haves and less strict seniority requirements): Women are 16% less likely to apply for a job after viewing it, but also 16% more likely to get hired after they apply, according to LinkedIn.
  • Include details about benefits and, if possible, the total compensation and rewards in the ad itself: 68% of women (vs 58% of men) look for this information (flexibility, healthcare, parental leave) before they will apply for the job according to LinkedIn.
  • Highlight all your flexible work options (location and schedule): Only one in 10 women wants to work mostly onsite, and many women point to remote- and hybrid-work options as one of their top reasons for joining or staying with an organization, according to McKinsey. Flexible schedules are also critical for attracting women, especially those caring for children or elders, so be sure to highlight your offering in all job ads.
  • Promote your commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion: Women tend to look for and value their organization’s commitment to DEI (they’re more than 1.5x as likely as men to leave their job to work for a company that was more committed to DEI), so it’s important to highlight your values and work in DEI. This is especially important when hiring for roles in male-dominated fields like IT, construction and engineering.
  • Promote your commitment to health and wellbeing: Throughout the pandemic, working women suffered from higher rates of burnout than their male peers (43% of women leaders reported being burned out, compared to 31% of men at their level, according to McKinsey), in part due to the large amount of time they dedicate to supporting the emotional and mental health of others in the workplace (women are 63% more likely to provide emotional support to their peers than men). It’s not surprising, therefore, that they seek mental health and wellbeing support in the workplace. If you have any notable programs or offerings to promote health and wellbeing (EFAP, family counseling, etc.), mention them.
  • Advertise your family values: Many women have a child during a critical period for career development and advancement (more than 33% of women aged 25 to 34 have a child under the age of six, according to RBC). Studies have shown that maternity leave has far-ranging, lasting impacts on women’s careers—resulting in everything from lower pay to less opportunity for advancement. Minimize these impacts by offering mat leave top-ups, paid family time off, dedicated paternity leave, additional family wellness days, and more. And if you have tailored programs to support women experiencing the symptoms of menopause, be sure to promote them publicly as well.
  • Promote career growth opportunities: Younger jobseekers in particular look for opportunities for training, professional growth and mentorship, so they can advance in their careers. According to Monster, 37% of Gen Z job seekers want to see career advancement expectations for the position in the job posting, and another 30% look for verbiage on career or leadership development programs. If you offer career pathing and professional development, advertise it. Given the disparity between women and men in leadership roles, it’s especially critical to highlight equal advancement opportunities for women.

How to retain more women

Many of the ideas for recruiting more women to your organization are, of course, also applicable to retaining them. According to McKinsey, women leaders are leaving their companies at the highest rate we’ve ever seen—and at a much higher rate than men leaders. They found that for every woman at the director level who gets promoted, two women directors are choosing to leave their company.

Here are some ideas for retaining more women at every stage of their career:

  • Be intentional with career pathing: Ensure you prioritize career pathing for women in your organization, so they can climb beyond the “broken rung”—that first step up to a manager position. McKinsey found that for every 100 men who are promoted to manager positions, only 87 women are promoted—and they never catch up. This eventually results in too few women to promote to senior leadership positions, resulting in a never-ending cycle. And career pathing is especially critical for working mothers. A 2018 study showed that after the birth of her first child, a mother’s chances of becoming a manager declined slightly, whereas a father’s chances rose steeply over time.
  • Support working mothers: According to Moms at Work, one-third of women reported being discriminated against due to becoming/being a mother in the workplace; and 40% considered quitting after returning to work post-maternity leave. Keep these women engaged and growing with your organization by: offering a “keep in touch” program during mat leave, promoting paternity leave, developing transition plans, offering re-onboarding, and more. Note: We’re in the process of developing a guide for employers with ideas for supporting working mothers. Stay tuned!
  • Support women in menopause: Almost two million working women in Canada are between the ages of 45 and 55, the age when most women reach menopause. And, according to one US study, four out of 10 women experience menopause symptoms that interfere with their work performance or productivity and 17% have quit or considered quitting a job due to menopause symptoms. Develop a policy specifically about menopause; consider offering flexibility, part-time work or job sharing; offer counseling and proactively counter unconscious bias and ageism (three in 10 working women fear they’ll be perceived as “weak, old, or past their prime” when in menopause, according to one study).

The workplace I want to see

As I read through the excellent article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter, I was struck by how much of what she wrote back in 2012 is still applicable today (unfortunately and fortunately).

On the downside, the disparities between men and women that she mentions in the article are still present today (many of which I’ve noted above). However, on the upside, one of the key suggestions she had for improving the workplace for working women is already well underway today: increased flexibility.

She recommended both flexible hours and remote work enabled by “teleconferencing” technology, and as we’ve seen over the past three years, this kind of flexibility has proven to be a boon, especially for working mothers.

I encourage employers to stretch their thinking about when, where, and how work will be done, and to be as inclusive as possible for working parents, especially mothers who need to balance work with primary caregiving responsibilities.

I also encourage all leaders—men and women—to start normalizing the conversation around balancing work and family (and I mean all family—not just children) and to talk openly about their responsibilities. If you need to skip an after-work get together to care for aging parents or help kids with homework, say so. We need to signal to women that it’s possible to balance work and life without jeopardizing the opportunity for promotion.

We all have the chance to create the kind of workplace that works for everyone at every stage of their career. And as we get closer to realizing it, we’ll finally be able put the question about “having it all” to rest.

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