As part of SustainabilityX®’s #CorporateGenderEquality SDG#5 Spotlight Series, we’re interviewing trailblazing global female corporate leaders and entrepreneurs who’re bridging the gender gap by breaking barriers, shattering traditional stereotypes, and taking the world of business by storm. This campaign is in line with our third pillar of sustainability upon which SustainabilityX® is based: social inclusion, which involves marginzalized populations and vulnerable communities such as women, persons with disabilities, unemployed youth, sexual and gender minorities, the elderly, Indigenous Peoples, and ethnic and racial minorities.
According to the World Bank, social inclusion is the right thing to do, and it also makes good economic sense. Left unaddressed, the exclusion of disadvantaged groups can be costly. At the individual level, the most commonly measured impacts include the loss of wages, lifetime earnings, poor education, and employment outcomes. Racism and discrimination also have physical and mental health costs. At the national level, the economic cost of social exclusion can be captured by foregone gross domestic product (GDP) and human capital wealth.
When we talk about promoting social inclusion, that also means embracing diversity – and that includes the aspect of gender. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021, another generation of women will have to wait for gender parity. As the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be felt, closing the global gender gap has increased by a generation from 99.5 years to 135.6 years.
Specifically, of the four key gap dimensions explored tracked in the report, the gender gap in the “Economic Participation and Opportunity” dimension remains the second-largest (behind political participation) of the four key gaps tracked by the index. According to 2022’s index results, only 58% of this gap has been closed so far. The gap has seen marginal improvement since the 2020 edition of the report and as a result, it is estimated that it will take another 267.6 years to close.
Women’s equal corporate participation and business leadership at the senior level are essential to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. However, data shows that women are underrepresented at all levels of decision-making worldwide, particularly to develop inclusive policy that responds to social inequities.
The slow progress seen in closing the “Economic Participation and Opportunity” gap is the result of a persistent lack of women in leadership positions, with women representing just 27% of all managerial positions. Even worse, the data available for the 2021 edition of the report does not yet fully reflect the impact of the pandemic. Projections for a select number of countries show that gender gaps in labour force participation are wider since the outbreak of the pandemic. Globally, the economic gender gap may thus be between 1% and 4% wider than reported.
In terms of sustainable development and the SDGs, this challenge can be illustrated by the combination of including, but not limited to, the following SDGs, their targets, and respective indicators:
SDG#5: Gender Equality – Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
Target 5.1: End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere
Target 5.5: Ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic, and public life
Target 5.c: Adopt and strengthen sound policies and enforceable legislation for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls at all levels
Our founder Supriya Verma had the pleasure of speaking with Jeanette M. Southwood, M.A.Sc., P.Eng., FEC, FCAE, QPESA, QPRA, Vice President, Strategy and Partnerships, Engineers Canada.
Here’s what she had to say:
Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
An award-winning engineer and leader, Jeanette Southwood is Vice President, Corporate Affairs and Strategic Partnerships at Engineers Canada, the national organization of the 12 regulators that license Canada’s more than 300,000 members of the engineering profession. Before joining Engineers Canada, Jeanette led the Canadian Urban Development & Infrastructure Sector and the Global Sustainable Cities teams at an international consulting firm where she was the first Black woman to be appointed to the senior leadership position of Principal. At Engineers Canada, her team’s portfolios include: equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI); communications; outreach and engagement; and government relations, public affairs and public policy. Jeanette is on LinkedIn here.
Q: From operating their own businesses to holding rare senior leadership positions at existing companies, women continue to face challenges in the workplace. What challenges have you experienced as a woman from entering the world of business and over the course of your career up until now? How have you overcome these challenges to get to where you are in your professional journey?
Research has found that at every stage of their engineering journey, women in engineering face barriers to success that their male counterparts don’t experience. Gender stereotypes start early on and lead to fewer girls taking the courses required to get into a post-secondary engineering program. Once women enter engineering, they often experience bias, harassment, and discrimination whether from colleagues, superiors, or from hiring practices, all of which contribute to a culture of exclusion for women. And they may also encounter a poor work-life balance, making it difficult to balance personal, family and/or community demands, which leads to a problem of retention in engineering as women leave. I’ve experienced many of these challenges myself throughout my career. Nowadays with substantive research being done by many organizations, there is evidence-based understanding of what can make the biggest difference in recruiting and retaining women and other underrepresented groups in engineering.
But we must recognize that there is still much work to be done to make the engineering profession and engineering workplaces truly diverse, equitable, and inclusive. And we must recognize that this is not only about women in engineering. Gender is not binary and the drive for more diversity and inclusion in engineering is to be more inclusive of all genders, LGBTQ2S+ communities, Indigenous people, Black people, people of colour, and persons with disabilities.
Q: According to the United Nations and SDG#5: Gender Equality, gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable world. However, data shows that women are underrepresented at all levels of decision-making worldwide, and achieving gender parity in business, much like politics or any other field, is far off. As a successful woman in business, what inspires you to keep going, and in your opinion, what can be done to achieve gender equality globally by 2030 or sooner?
Progress towards gender equality is admittedly slow. Yet over the course of my career as a woman in engineering, I have seen things evolve little by little. And it’s that progress that keeps me going. I also find great inspiration from working with other people and organizations who are working towards the same goal of advancing equity, diversity and inclusion for all.
At Engineers Canada, we’ve set a goal to see 30 per cent of newly licensed engineers be female-identifying by 2030, based on research that suggests that 30 per cent is the tipping point for sustainable change. As part of that goal, we’ve brought together engineering regulators, higher education institutions, and other engineering organizations who are all united in their vision for a more equitable engineering profession. Globally, we’re also working with the World Federation of Engineering Organizations (WFEO)’s Women in Engineering Committee to share best practices with engineering organizations from around the world and learn from others around the world also.
Q: Current social constructs in our society consist of a dangerous and harmful mix of gender and cultural biases that favour leaders and business owners that are male. These collective biases impede the professional, and at times personal, the success of women, and have long been identified as reasons barring women from reaching their true potential. How can we overcome these biases together as a society to achieve true gender equality according to the United Nations’ SDG#5: Gender Equality by 2030?
There’s a lot that employers can do to change organizational cultures so that these biases don’t impede women’s success. There must be a commitment from leadership at the very top of organizations to promote policies that enable work-life balance and create welcoming workplaces. Organizations must create plans that outline actions, metrics to monitor progress, and—most importantly—the resources that will lead to an improved experience for women and other underrepresented groups. Employers also need to understand their employees—understand why they stay, why they might leave—and work to support retention. Based on that feedback, employers can improve hiring and retention practices and provide supports to women and other underrepresented groups and invest in their career advancement.
Engineers Canada has published a resource guide for engineering employers that compiles these and other tactics that can increase diversity and women’s participation at various levels of an organization.
Q: There is established and growing evidence that women’s leadership in corporate decision-making processes improves them, yet often, women’s corporate participation is limited to junior roles with less influence rather than senior leadership roles with several responsibilities. Studies have repeatedly suggested that having more women on boards or top leadership positions significantly boosts a firm’s performance. Research shows that inclusive teams make better business decisions about 90% of the time while teams with less diversity are more likely to make poor choices for their companies. However, they also suggest that a critical mass of upwards of 30% is needed for this effect to materialize. What can be done to improve women’s corporate participation and leadership positions? What policies do firms need to adopt to address this gender gap? Can current female corporate leaders help, and if so, how?
Engineers Canada’s 30 by 30 goal—to see 30 per cent of newly license engineers be female-identifying by 2030—builds on the idea that 30 per cent is the tipping point for sustainable change. Engineers Canada has also signed on to the Canadian government’s 50 – 30 Challenge, which asks organizations to aspire to two goals: gender parity on boards and/or in senior management; and significant representation on boards and/or in senior management of other equity-deserving groups. Signing onto these types of challenges can be important frameworks and motivators to take action to evolve as an organization.
Engineers Canada’s resource guide for engineering employers mentioned above has some useful tactics and policies to improve an organization’s equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts.
Current women leaders can certainly help to advance these changes in their workplaces, but they can’t be the only ones. Women can speak out, they can participate in policy development, they can be subject matter experts. But the onus should not be on women and underrepresented groups to be the only movers and makers of change. Everyone has a role to play and there must be a well-resourced commitment from leadership to create more inclusive environments.
Q: Businesses and brands that actively support gender equality tend to make better corporate decisions and therefore, more money. However, while studies show that firms with a higher proportion of women in senior leadership roles perform better, they also report that those same women earn significantly less than men. The Economist and McKinsey Global Institute estimate that “if the gender gaps in participation, hours worked and productivity were all bridged, the world economy would be $28.4 trillion (or 26%) richer”. Have you experienced, or are you currently experiencing, this gender pay gap? If so, how have/are you navigating this path? What do you think firms, leaders, policymakers, and society should do to help address this gender pay gap? What needs to be done to dissolve this stark discrepancy?
One of the great things about many of the professions in Canada are the salary surveys that are made available each year. It’s a way for anyone, no matter their gender, to see what is being paid to professionals at various stages of their careers. Having this type of information enables knowledgeable participation in salary negotiations. I’ve found that having this type of data to use as part of the basis for salary negotiation has been helpful for me in the past. The importance of transparency and salary data cannot be overstated when it comes to addressing the gender pay gap.
Q: Having more female board directors means more diverse talent on the management team, including new ranges of skills and various perspectives from untraditional backgrounds. Female leaders have often been noted to improve not only financial performance metrics but also “de-risk firm performance” by reducing the likelihood of lawsuits and corporate scandals, while improving CSR and ESG performance by complying with environmental regulations to a higher degree and ensuring ethical sourcing and the preservation of human rights within supply chains. Firms with a higher proportion of women in their boards also tend to invest more in innovation and embrace teamwork. What role do you believe corporate women leaders have to play in helping companies and brands transition towards sustainability and circularity?
Corporate women leaders do have a role to play in helping companies and brands transition towards sustainability and circularity, but the role can only be fulfilled through collaboration with and support of others. The burden can not rest solely on the shoulders of corporate women leaders. Leaders don’t journey alone.
Q: Where do you see the world 10 years from now in terms of SDG5: Gender Equality, and the various gender gaps that currently exist in leadership positions and pay?
We’ve all seen the recent news out of the United States and the threats to laws that give women control over their own bodies. Currently, we’re seeing a sliding away from advances that have previously been made around women and their independence. If I was looking at an ideal world 10 years from now, I would want to have seen a realization that this was not the way to go, that this was not the way to advance society and the economy. Ten years from now, I’d like to be able to see an improved legal framework for women and underrepresented groups; I’d like to see improved policies, improved ways for women and underrepresented groups to participate in the economy, including in leadership positions, and including in pay equity.
Cheers to a sustainable world!
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The SustainabilityX® Magazine is an award-winning, digital, female-founded, and female-led non-profit initiative bringing the environment and economy together for a sustainable future through dialogue. Founded on May 8, 2016 and inspired by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals by Canada’s Top 30 Under 30 in Sustainability Leadership awardee, Supriya Verma, the digital media initiative focuses on approaching the world’s most pressing challenges with a holistic, integrated, systems-based perspective as opposed to the traditional and ineffective siloed approach with a single lens on interdisciplinary topics like climate and energy. This initiative ultimately seeks to explore how to effectively bring the environment and economy together through intellectual, insightful dialogue and thought-provoking discussion amongst individuals across sectors taking an interdisciplinary and integrated approach to untangling the intricate web of sustainability.
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