Making Space at the Table

On a bright winter day last month, my husband and I joined YWCA Toronto and thousands of people marching in Toronto and around the world to support International Women’s Day 2018: #PressforProgress. Buoyed by the growing impact of movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp, we all saw that the time is ripe to get more women at more tables helping to make more of the decisions that affect us all.

The people walking in the march were interested in issues ranging from climate change to tax policy to education, labour rights and access to health and housing, but we were united in believing that every issue will be better dealt with if the perspectives and voices of women are included. The challenge remains finding space at the table.

As keepers of significant wealth, jobs and influence, corporate tables are a crucial place for women to be. With all of the studies proving that having women on corporate boards translates into better decisions and financial success for the company, it is mind boggling that so many of Canada’s corporate tables remain so male-dominated.

In 2013, TD Economics found that women made up only 11 per cent of board members at companies on the S&P/TSX Composite Index – the biggest in Canada. Many similar studies later, the number has barely shifted. A 2017 Osler report found that women held 14.5 per cent of the total board seats among the 692 companies that are willing to disclose these numbers, 37 per cent of which still have no women on their boards. It also found that the number of women in executive roles has hovered around the 15 per cent mark since 2015.

As CEO of Futurpreneur Canada, I take heart in knowing that over 40 per cent of the more than 1,000 new businesses we support each year are majority-led by women. If our current corporate giants don’t start capitalizing on the needs, ideas and talents of women at their corporate tables, they will find themselves lagging behind this new group of corporate leaders who do.

Beyond corporate tables, we need women taking their place in policymaking, educational and skills programs, and workplaces of every kind. The fact that Canada has a gender-balanced federal cabinet has boosted our country’s reputation for being progressive and inclusive – important calling cards in the competition for top talent. It has also given our daughters realistic role models for a life in public service – that you can serve Canada in the highest of offices if you are young, female and even expecting!

We cannot underestimate the importance of “see her to be her.” Nothing is more depressing to me than seeing an all-male panel of experts or an all-male photo of award winners.
If girls and young women don’t see women doing the things they want to do, they will have a harder time achieving their aspirations. Yes, we need to provide girls with the skills and training to succeed in politics, in STEM, and in skilled trades. But we also need to showcase the stories of the women who are forging careers in those and other professions. While the female Dragons may fuel the big dreams of aspiring women entrepreneurs, it is the contestants who will show them the path.

An easy way to make sure that your tables are benefitting from the best possible ideas and diverse perspectives is to simply ask “who is missing?” Whatever diversity your table is lacking – and it may well be more than gender – there are many people aching to help you. All you need to do is make space at the table.

Julia Deans is a recipient of a YWCA Toronto 2018 Women of Distinction Award. She is currently CEO of Futurpreneur Canada. In May 2018, she will begin a new role as inaugural CEO of the Canadian Children’s Literacy Foundation, a new organization aiming to make Canadian children the most literate in the world.