Women Leaders Index Gender Equality Case Study: Canada

By on 05/09/2017 | Updated on 17/11/2017
The Women leaders Index examines gender equality in Canada's senior civil service

Every country has a different story to tell on women leaders in the civil service. Interviewing experts on the findings of our Women Leaders Index – which tracks the proportion of female senior civil servants, national politicians and business leaders in G20 and EU member states – we’ve examined the agenda’s achievements and the remaining obstacles in 11 national case studies

“I never thought of myself as a ‘woman leader’,” says Janice Charette, until recently Canada’s most senior civil servant and now its High Commissioner to the UK. “I just thought it was really natural and normal; I never thought there were any barriers to overcome. I was the second woman to be appointed as the Clerk of the Privy Council, and there have been women leaders in both the number one and number two jobs across ministries in the government of Canada. Women have been making it to the top for decades.

“It never occurred to me that this needed to be the subject of ‘initiatives’ because there were trailblazers even ahead of me, and I am not a young pup.”

Charette’s experience of life in the Canadian civil service is borne out by the data. When Global Government Forum first started tracking the proportion of women in G20 senior civil service posts for EY back in 2013, Canada was already streets ahead of its peers with 45% representation.

The top six G20 performers show very similar progress since 2013, rising slowly from a high base. As the G20 mean figures show, their improvements are slower than the average – but this figure is pulled down by the poor performers at the bottom of the chart, and next year some middle-ranking, fast-improving nations could move into the leading group.

In the four years since, slow but steady improvement has enabled it to hang onto its number one spot each year – a feat described by Charette as “a significant achievement”.

“The net increase in our position looks relatively small, but that’s because we started from such a high base,” she says. “That’s down to a couple of things: a consistent effort to attract women into the public services of Canada; and [work] to remove barriers [obstructing] their ability to seek and succeed in leadership positions.”

In fact, Charette’s successor as Clerk of the Privy Council, Michael Wernick, suggests that Canada is now in the “third wave of leadership” on the issue of gender equality in senior positions.

“There have been successive waves of leadership from people in my job and deputy minister jobs to increase the supply chain and the feeder pool,” he says. “So it has required less and less effort to put women in positions of responsibility, because more and more of them are coming into the zone where you have no hesitation; you just go for the best person, and it works out.

“I would say we’re in the third generation now. First there were the real pioneers – the first women in jobs or at various tables – then the second wave was probably in the ‘90s, when you saw more and more women in positions of responsibility and the numbers started to move up quite a bit. You began to have fewer of those: ‘Oh, the first woman in that job’ moments as various barriers were broken through. We’ve already had a woman prime minister and a woman chief justice, and two of my predecessors as cabinet secretary were women.

“So now we’re in the third wave, which is more about workplace culture: how meetings are conducted; avoiding ‘mansplaining’ and ‘manterruption’; tackling unconscious bias – that more subtle and nuanced stuff. In fact, we’re beyond binary gender now in Canada, we’re talking about transgender and that sort of thing.” This is evidenced by the announcement in March’s federal Budget of a $3.6m (US$2.7m/€2.4m) LGBTQ2 secretariat at the Privy Council Office. Taking its name from the catch-all Canadian term ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, and 2-spirited’, this office will help to coordinate government initiatives on LGBTQ2 issues.

Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council, Canada

Interestingly, it does not appear that Canada’s early successes were rooted in civil service initiatives designed to improve gender equality in leadership roles; neither Charette nor Wernick can recall any specific programmes on the issue from the 1980s or ‘90s. But Canada was an early adopter of equal rights and anti-discrimination policies across wider society, and civil servants – who designed and delivered these policies – seem to have taken them to heart.

“We have legislation which dates from the ‘90s which requires employers to remove barriers to the four designated groups: women, visible minorities, indigenous persons and people of disability,” comments Wernick. “We have a Human Rights Commission which is very active on these issues and has an audit function so that people are held to account. And also there is a complaint-based mechanism, where if people feel there is any discrimination they can pursue it – so there is a legal and structural framework.

“The legislative framework that governs public sector employment does include employment equity but we have never had an explicit quota-based system; it’s always been more about removing barriers”.

National policies, introduced by the federal government to regulate the labour market, have been a big help. Notable amongst these is an employment insurance system which gives parents of young children the ability to take a year of funded childcare leave, can be split equally between mothers and fathers, and is often topped up by employers. “A lot of women really count on those sorts of supportive policies, especially if they want to achieve positions which are higher-workload, higher-demand, as leadership positions tend to be,” says Charette.

Work does go on within the civil service to monitor and improve diversity, but this has never focused specifically on gender. Says Charette: “There is an advisory group that works to support the clerk, who ultimately has the responsibility and accountability for the management of the senior leadership community in the civil service.

“That committee, under the leadership of the clerk, monitors very carefully and regularly – two or three times a year – the demographic of the senior leadership. It looks at age, gender, professional background, and language, because we are a bilingual country. Having a pool of senior leaders who are diverse across all those demographic characteristics is important to us.”

The biggest challenge facing that committee currently is how to attract more visible minorities and indigenous first-nation Canadians into senior leadership roles. Charette says the committee will develop targeted strategies such as fast-streaming existing employees, recruiting externally and setting up secondments. “It really depends on the nature of the gap you’re trying to fill,” she says. “But it’s never been necessary to do that to improve the gender balance. Of course, we have had management initiatives to make sure we were identifying and developing high-potential individuals – but that was gender-neutral.”

Both Wernick and Charette are confident that Canada will continue to make progress, eventually reaching parity. Says Wernick: “The numbers look very promising in the feeder grades. And it’s not a closed ecosystem; we do bring people in from outside, I’ve done a bit of recruiting of people who work in provincial governments and other places and that helps as well.

“And if you go back far enough in the supply chain and look at what’s coming out of the universities and colleges, most of the disciplines are heavily stacked with female graduates – even science and engineering and so on. I don’t think we’ll have any problem achieving parity on gender.”

It helps that leaders at the very highest levels continue to champion the cause of equal opportunities. One of the very first actions of incoming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2015 was to announce his Cabinet, deliberately comprising half women and half men. Says Charette: “I was the Clerk of the Privy Council at the time of his transition to becoming prime minister, and I know this was something he was thinking about in his years as party leader: building the pipeline of candidates across the country who could potentially go on to be Cabinet ministers. It was his explicit choice to have a gender-equal Cabinet, despite the fact that we still don’t have gender parity in terms of our elected representatives.”

G20 countries show huge variations in the proportions of women in national parliaments and in ministerial posts. South Africa and Germany score well on both sides, whilst Canada and Australia suffer from weaker representation in national assemblies.
In Latin America, Argentina and Mexico perform well in parliament but have very few female ministers. And while there is some correlation with civil service data, the link is not a hard one.

And there’s something else that helps, concludes Wernick: the evolution of leadership styles in the modern world. “The public service I joined in the 1980s had a lot of yellers and screamers and ashtray-throwers,” he recalls. “That’s just not a successful strategy any more.”


Click here for the full results of Global Government Forum’s 2016-17 Women Leaders Index

Or click through to our case studies on Australia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Malta, Mexico, Turkey and the UK.

About Tania Mason

Journalist and an expert in organisational and management issues.

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