In the evolving landscape of corporate commitment to gender diversity, there is a widespread acknowledgement that fostering an inclusive work environment is paramount. Yet, while Canada has made significant progress in attracting more women to the workplace, some argue companies may be unconsciously missing the mark when implementing strategies that will cultivate true and lasting gender parity. Critics suggest that while firms showcase various initiatives to recruit women, such as incorporating inclusive language and highlighting success stories, their efforts lack the strategic approach needed for change. What’s the risk? Being seen as merely window dressing.

Pulling back the curtain

A new report from Ivey’s Lawrence National Centre for Policy and Management, entitled Trickle-down and Bottom-up Effects on Workplace Gender Diversity, uses the latest diversity research from Ivey’s Alison Konrad, a professor of Organizational Behaviour, and her collaborators to shed light on the stark gender disparities in the Canadian workplace. Most significantly, the report offers a tangible roadmap for organizations and policy-makers to employ to increase female representation across every rung of the corporate ladder and to effectively tear down the window dressing.

Want to increase female representation in the workplace? Start in the middle

Expanding upon Konrad's research, the Lawrence Centre team recognized that achieving gender parity is a nuanced endeavour, far from a one-size-fits-all approach. Fostering increased representation necessitates a strategic and multi-faceted approach. The first step requires a meticulous analysis of the current gender composition, whether it’s skewed towards males, females, or balanced, and subsequently intervening at various levels of the hierarchy.

Of particular significance, researchers stressed that the linchpin for diversity lies in the deliberate hiring of more women at the middle-management level, particularly in male-dominated industries. In these industries, the presence of women in middle management is a powerful catalyst. It broadly signals that the organization values female voices and involvement within the corporate hierarchy, which then attracts more females to non-management roles (known as the trickle-down effect). Also of note, in female-tilted industries, having more women in non-management positions increases women’s representation in both middle and upper management (known as the bottom-up effect).

“I’m very encouraged by our findings that hiring more women in non-management positions leads to a growth of women in lower to middle management,” said Konrad. “This finding shows that diversifying the workplace at the bottom helps firms to identify female leadership talent.”

The climb to the top

While the Lawrence Centre researchers emphasize the importance of hiring women at a middle-management level, they stress that hiring and promoting more women in top management positions should not be overlooked – especially in male-tilted industries. The team urges firms to consider career progression, and to create opportunities for female leadership training for middle managers – enabling them to hone the skills and knowledge required to eventually take on higher leadership roles. This will ensure women are hired, supported, and empowered at every level.

Konrad said the most troubling finding in the study is the lack of either a trickle-down or a bottom-up effect linking lower to middle management to the top management team.

“These findings show that women’s leadership talent does not flow ‘naturally’ across the entire pipeline and that firms must pay attention to career progress for women leaders to diversify their management ranks at all levels, including the very top,” she said.

Noting that the evidence shows women face systemic workplace challenges, Lawrence Centre Director Romel Mostafa says overcoming these challenges will involve a collective effort.

“Addressing the issue will require many firms to reconsider some of their existing human resources practices, and governments and other stakeholders to provide necessary guidance and support,” he said. “Based on the evidence, this brief offers some clear policy directions for the stakeholders concerned, and we hope it will set in motion collective action towards addressing this important issue.”

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  • Critical issues
  • Lawrence Centre
  • Alison Konrad
  • Romel Mostafa
  • Evolution of work
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