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What We Heard: Women in Business Summit 2023

What We Heard: Women in Business Summit 2023

Wednesday June 14 marked our third annual Women in Business Summit, an event that aims to provide government and the business community with policy recommendations and practical tools and strategies to address barriers facing women in the workforce and Canada’s economic growth.

Wednesday June 14 marked our third annual Women in Business Summit, an event that aims to provide government and the business community with policy recommendations and practical tools and strategies to address barriers facing women in the workforce and Canada’s economic growth.

The day’s agenda was chock full of insightful discussions, from brilliant keynote addresses about immigrant women in the workforce and the data behind gender parity worldwide, to one-on-one conversations, and panel discussions about women in leadership, entrepreneurship, thriving in traditionally male-dominated sectors and more.

For those who missed the day’s event or want to go back and rewatch the sessions in full, you can do so here.

For a summary of the day’s biggest lessons and takeaways, read on!

A Quick Recap

Need a quick reminder of what was covered or want some help deciding which sessions to re-watch? Check out our one-sentence summaries below.

Keynotes & Fireside Chats

  • Fireside Chat with Diana van Maasdijk, Co-Founder and CEO of Equileap, on gender parity data worldwide, which countries are leading the pack when it comes to gender equality and how a gender lens is key to responsible investing.
  • Lunchtime Keynote with Saadia Muzaffar, Founder and President of TechGirls Canada, on the unique challenges facing immigrant women in the Canadian workforce and how businesses can remove barriers and address bias.

Panel Discussions

  • High-Growth Sectors and the Corporate Pipeline brought together four leaders in traditionally male-dominated sectors including natural resources, construction, transport and engineering, to discuss barriers and solutions to recruiting and retaining women in their industries.
  • Leadership and the Gender Gap included women in leadership in the financial sector sharing their career journeys, including roadblocks and successes, as well as insights on progress towards gender equality in the industry and lessons for the business community at large.
  • Pushing Boundaries and Disrupting the Status Quo featured four inspiring women entrepreneurs making waves in the world of construction, technology and the trades, discussing the challenges and opportunities in entrepreneurship and their respective industries.

MP Remarks

  • The Honourable Filomena Tassi, MP, Minister responsible for the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario, gave an update on the government programs supporting women in the workforce, including entrepreneurs.
  • Karen Vecchio, MP and Chair of the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women, shared her insights and experiences as a small-business owner, mother and Parliamentarian.

One-on-One Conversations

  • Marie-Hélène Labrie, Senior Vice President and Chief Public Affairs, Communications and Strategy Officer, Cogeco talks about successful strategies for creating a strong culture of inclusion, including employee resource groups (ERGs) and getting granular with DEI metrics and tracking.
  • Penny Wise, President & Managing Director of 3M, and Candace Laing, Canadian Chamber of Commerce Board Chair discuss Penny’s career path in STEM (starting with a pivotal moment in grade 3!), barriers to women in STEM fields and education and the legacy we’re leaving for future generations of women.
  • Julia Kelly, VP of Small Business Banking and Segment Strategy at TD covers everything from the definition and importance of allyship, to concrete examples including sponsorship, inclusive parental policies and understanding biases.

Biggest Takeaways

Canada is making progress…but we’ve still got a long way to go

  • Based on data from Equileap’s Gender Equality Global Report and Ranking (which looks at thousands of publicly listed companies with a value of at least $2 billion USD), Canada ranks higher than the United States when it comes to gender equality but lags behind many European nations – the highest scoring countries are France, Spain, Italy and Norway.
  • Several of Canada’s financial institutions have made significant progress towards gender parity over the last 15 years, from board representation to improved parental leave policies and flexible work arrangements. Two even managed to score in the top 100 companies for gender equality globally in Equileap’s rankings.
  • Many companies in traditionally-male dominated industries, including engineering and natural resources, have seen great strides towards gender parity on board of directors and in their C-suites – over 30%, with some even hitting the 50% mark.

The true fact is, that becoming a mother doesn’t take any knowledge nor the experience that I had gained over the course of my career. It doesn’t define my capabilities. So I decided to continue my conversation and just to see what happens.

Stacey Bai, Vice President, Commercial Pricing, Aviva Canada

Transparency and data are non-negotiable

  • Identifying gender parity and other DEI goals and KPIs, measuring, tracking and reviewing them consistently is crucial to achieving progress towards equality.
  • Publishing gender pay gap and other gender equality data is one of the most powerful first steps a company can take on the journey towards gender parity – even if the data is hard to swallow at first.
  • Quotas can be effective at increasing gender parity on boards of directors and at executive and senior leadership levels.

You can only change what you can measure. So, you have to start measuring it, even if it’s very poor and low, and then you can have a strategy to change it.

Diana van Maasdijk, Co-Founder & CEO, Equileap

Set an example

  • Inclusivity needs to be embedded in a business’ core values. This looks like consistent leadership across an industry and executives and managers leading by example and willing to put some skin in the game.
  • Representation matters – women and girls need to see themselves in the leaders and industries around them. This sends the message that those achievements are possible.
  • Mentoring and championing women, both inside and outside the workplace, are extremely valuable to gender parity in the workforce. By becoming actively involved in a woman’s success, it sends a good message across an organization.

I think a lot of the work we’ve done is kind of upskilled and equipped our leaders to have a diverse language, have diverse thoughts, understand the importance of why diversity matters…I like to say, DEI is a marathon, it’s not a sprint.

Molara Awosedo, Director, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Greater Toronto Airports Authority

Retaining is just as important as recruiting

  • Flexible work provides many benefits to women in the workforce and is proving to be a significant contributor to women’s workforce retention and economic gender parity.
  • When companies meet women where they’re at in their life and support them accordingly, it contributes to a safe space where women feel appreciated and valued as team members, leading to better employee retention– a great example is ensuring women and those planning to go on parental leave continue to be included in projects, given promotions and supported professionally.
  • Many industries are experiencing radical changes within their workforce, and retention will be more important than ever for their continued success. Diversity at the entry-level is an important first step but retaining that diverse talent long-term needs to be a priority.

The construction industry in Canada has 1.5 million people working in it right now, and the latest has 700,000 of those folks retiring by the year 2028. And at the same time, demand for construction services will double or triple. Where I’m going with this, is that our industry will be radically different – it will look radically different inside of ten years… The trick is to keep people in this industry long term and not lose them.

Tim Coldwell, President, Chandos Construction

Check your unconscious biases

  • Addressing unconscious bias, in company policies and in day-to-day interactions, is crucial to an inclusive environment and ensuring women aren’t inadvertently being passed over for jobs, projects, promotions or other career growth opportunities.  
  • Unconscious bias is a particularly challenging uphill battle for immigrant women trying to enter the Canadian workforce. Only 15% of employers say they actively pursue immigrant and refugee talent.
  • Employers commonly implement screen-out mechanisms based on unconscious bias during hiring that disproportionately impact immigrant women. This can look like screening women out based on their accent, name, or lack of very specific Canadian job-experience, instead of being assessed on their overall competence and potential.

We have to change how we think of immigrant talent in Canada. But I think it’s really promising to actually name the problem and say ‘we’re not going to allow for it,’

Saadia Muzaffar, Founder & President, TechGirls Canada and Co-founder, Tech Reset Canada

Diversity is good for business

  • Gender equality and diversity isn’t just nice to have – it’s fundamental to improved economic and financial success.
  • Companies with immigrants in their leadership have, on average, a 15% higher profitability than those who do not. Firms with ethnic and racial diversity in their top quartile saw a 35% increase in financial returns.
  • Indices built on responsible investing with a gender lens lead to better returns for all stakeholders and continually outperform their benchmarks. For example, an index focused on the French market which chose 40 companies with the highest Equileap gender equality score, sees a 3% outperformance every year. 

You create an equitable working environment so that your employees feel psychologically safe, and they’ll be able to deliver their best results for the organization and for your customers

Rejean Roberge, Vice President, Optimum Mortgage, Canadian Western Bank

Women entrepreneurs have great advice

  • Trust your instincts.
  • Ask for what you want and don’t be deterred by a “no” – it’s an opportunity to try something another way. Equally as important – learn to say “no” to other people!
  • Build yourself a community of other women to lift each other up and support each other on your career paths.

So I said, I’m going to go out and I’m going to start my own company and I’m going to be everything I was told not to be. I’m going to be a woman. I’m going to be Indigenous. I built social housing and Indigenous housing and childcare, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since

Rory Richards, CEO, NUQO Elevated Modular


Gender parity isn’t a “women’s” issue – it’s an economic one, and the success and prosperity of our businesses and our economy depend on us acting now – but where to start? Here are a few ideas from our summit speakers:

  1. Set DEI metrics and goals, and consistently track them and measure progress.
  2. Be transparent – whether positive, negative, government-mandated or not, publish your gender parity info. It’s an impactful first step.
  3. Talk to your employees. Hold focus groups, conduct anonymous surveys – ask them what barriers they face or how they feel the workplace could be more inclusive and supportive of women, and then take action to submit recommendations and update policies accordingly.
  4. Launch an executive sponsorship program to have senior leaders actively invest in the development and advocacy for women, especially those with intersecting identities.
  5. Invest in unconscious bias training to help identify bias in corporate policies and in your day-to-day interactions.
  6. Read Equileap’s Gender Equality Global Report & Ranking, and pay special attention to the scorecard at the end of the report – are there any areas on that scorecard your business could improve on?
  7. Reevaluate your hiring practices and approach to evaluating skills and competencies and consider taking international credentials into account.
  8. Where possible, consider hybrid and flexible work arrangements.
  9. Consider a DEI procurement strategy – look for a diverse pool of suppliers, including women-owned businesses.
  10. For businesses in traditionally male-dominated fields, such as STEM and the trades – start recruitment earlier by focusing on education and awareness building for parents and primary school-aged children, as well as middle school and high school. Kids tend to choose careers young, and a society shift is necessary to ensure they are considering a diverse range of skills and careers regardless of societal gender expectations.
  11. Consider how you can formally or informally mentor or champion women in your workplace – examples might include praising a colleague’s work publicly, suggesting them for promotions or raises, ensuring women are not inadvertently left out of common after-hours networking or social opportunities such as golf, sports games or dinners.
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