Breaking down men’s ‘easier path’ up the corporate ladder

Paul Harrietha says that early in their careers, when he and his wife were both in the consulting field and working their way up, they found that he accelerated very quickly, becoming a partner quite early. 

His wife and several of her friends, who Harrietha says were harder working, smarter and more committed to their jobs, were all plateauing at the director level. They couldn’t crack the ceiling. 

Paul Harrietha

“I got intrigued by that, and I wanted to know why these women who were so committed, hard-working, talented, qualified, and so well-credentialed were all plateauing, while a bunch of us who were sort of hard-working but also beer-swilling, golfing sort of guys were out in getting all the big jobs,” Harrietha, who is also the principal at CAPS Leadership Group, a research cooperative committed to the pursuit of gender equity in Canada, told “It just seemed that we had an easier path.”

The same sentiments were echoed by the 50 female executives from across Canada interviewed by Harrietha and Holly Catalfamo, co-authors of the book The Invisible Rules. 

The book actually began life as an academic exercise designed to explore gender equity in corporate Canada through the interviewees’ lens. But that changed quickly when the co-authors realized the hundreds of unheard voices that needed to be featured in a book.

The numbers don’t lie

Canadian HR, payroll, and benefits platform, Humi, recently revealed alarming statistics in its report on the state of Canadian workplaces in 2020, highlighting that only 21 per cent of C-suite positions in Canada are were by women. They also only made up 30 per cent of the tech workforce in the country last year.

A separate 2021 study from SAP Canada highlights another alarming figure: Nearly half (44 per cent) of respondents agree that tech companies don’t really want to hire women. This sentiment was echoed stronger among those in middle seniority roles (61 per cent) and those working at smaller companies (54 per cent). A 2019 report from the Brookfield Institute emphasized serious participation and earnings disparities between men and women in tech, noting that men in Canada are four times more likely than women to be in a tech job. There is also a stark pay gap between men and women in tech occupations, with women earning on average $7,300 less than their male counterparts. 

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“I think, overall, it comes back to the importance of businesses being aware of hiring biases, and that they’re not only stressing the importance of equity, diversity and inclusion policies but also paying attention to how these policies and training connect behavioural changes within businesses,” said Andrea Bartlett, director of HR for Humi, in an interview with the publication. “Organizations must understand their sourcing strategies to ensure that they’re inclusive so that we can actually make positive change and movement on this number.”

There is a perception that women need to prove their competence in ways that men do not, says Harrietha. Based on the collected data and more than 50 interviews, the bottom line is that women have fewer opportunities than their male counterparts to demonstrate their capabilities and, by extension, fewer opportunities to overcome any socialized sense of insecurity or lack of confidence.

Most of the respondents also acknowledged that they had witnessed or experienced Tightrope bias. That means women have to walk a fine line between stereotypical feminine behaviours that ensure likability but reinforce the need to prove it again, and stereotypically masculine (assertive) behaviours that signal leadership potential but often trigger negative reactions from the senior people hold the keys to leadership advancement.

“The reason we call the book “The Hidden Rules” rather than “The Invisible Rules” is that there is an understanding that women have to chase a number of subtle but cumulative biases in the workplace that simply make it harder for them to advance to senior leadership levels,” explained Harrietha. “Women have to walk this line that men don’t have to walk. Men don’t face the same issues that can have a real cumulative impact on their capacity to succeed and creates real emotional stress and leads ultimately to sort of this cumulative disadvantage, which is the wage gap and the promotions gap, all of those other elements.”

Progress, but …

There’s no question that progress has occurred, but at a painfully slow pace. Women have accounted for 30 per cent of employment growth in STEM since 2010 but still make up less than one-quarter of employment in these occupations, according to the TD Economics Women and STEM report

Overall, there is a strong consensus that women in tech as well as across all sectors in Canada continue to face various gender-specific biases and barriers in the workplace that make it difficult for them to compete straight up for the top jobs. Experts are worried that it will be difficult to close or even further narrow the overall gender wage gap if women fail to make stronger inroads. 

“Gender equity shouldn’t be a difficult thing to achieve. It just requires a board member in the C-suite to say we’re going to achieve it. If you try and manage it organically or through these policies, then you have this opportunity for all of the biases to continue to percolate through the decision-making process,” Catalfamo warned. “For example, people have tried to make performance reviews, promotional activities etc., objective – raring on a four-point scale, five-point scales and so on. But, what we have to understand is that the person who is assessing whether you’re a four or five is doing it through subjective lenses.”

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Pragya Sehgal
Pragya Sehgal
Born and raised in the capital city of India - Delhi - bounded by the river Yamuna on the west, Pragya has climbed the Himalayas, and survived medical professional stream in high school without becoming a patient or a doctor. Pragya now makes her home in Canada with her husband - a digital/online marketing fanatic who also loves to prepare delicious meals for her. When she isn’t working or writing around tech, she’s probably watching art films on Netflix, or wondering whether she should cut her hair short or not. Can be contacted at [email protected] or 647.695.3494.

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