A new report on women’s leadership in the Hamilton and Halton region reveals that women are underrepresented in senior leadership positions across a variety of sectors.

The report, co-authored by Karen Bird, associate professor of political science at McMaster, and Samantha Jackson, PhD candidate, looks at 2,565 women in senior leadership positions across nine different sectors. It finds that women are underrepresented in all sectors, except for the voluntary sector.

“It is really important to have these numbers, because we think it is 2014 and we have achieved equality, and there’s kind of a movement or buzz that there’s no need for feminism anymore,” said Bird. “I think our numbers should cause us to think about that, [and] reflect on that.”

Women are especially underrepresented in senior leadership positions in the corporate sector, with an average of 17.8 percent of women in top positions, and the private legal sector with a dismal 24.2 percent representation.

“There are barriers in private law firms to women achieving partnership. Even though women enter into the law firms, at the entry level, in reasonable numbers, […] they are not making it to partner,” said Bird. “It stood out as a very stark lack of inclusiveness of women.”

Women make up more than half of law school graduates, yet are still underrepresented in senior positions in the legal sector. Judiciary positions are the most representative at 40.4 percent, followed by 33.3 percent of Crown and Deputy Crown positions.

“There’s this very kind of popular argument that women need to lean in, we want to say that organizations need to lean in too,” said Bird.

These findings are consistent with a similar study of women’s leadership in the greater Toronto area completed at the University of Toronto in 2012.

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One sector where the Hamilton and Halton region fares better than the GTA is in the voluntary sector. In non-profit organizations, women make up an average of 51 percent of senior leadership.

“Some people have said, ‘oh well that’s exactly what you’d expect, of course women are choosing to be in the voluntary sector and social services, that’s what they want to do. They don’t want to be heads of corporations,’” said Bird. “That’s problematic to think ‘this is where women want to be.’ I think women want to be in all of these sectors.”

The report also found that at universities, women make up only 28.6 percent of senior leadership positions.

Similar representations of women in senior positions are found at McMaster. According to a study released in January 2014 by Charlotte Yates, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, only two of the eight Deans at McMaster are women, and over the last five years only 20 percent of Chairs and Directors of Academic units have been women faculty. Additionally, there has only been one female President and two female Provosts in McMaster’s 127-year history.

However, Yates’ report found that many of McMaster’s faculties are experiencing positive trends in the percentage of women in tenure-track positions, including the School of Business and the Faculty of Engineering. Women’s leadership is especially representative in the Faculty of Health Sciences, which has traditionally had a consistent record of both hiring and promoting women.

Bird is also working to create positive trends in women’s leadership at McMaster. As a part of the Academic Women’s Mentorship Ad Hoc Committee, she has helped to plan a series of lectures from women in leadership positions across multiple disciplines. The lecture series will highlight women’s success stories as well as barriers faced, and strategies to overcome those barriers. The series will begin Nov. 6 and is open to students from any faculty.

The report on women’s leadership has been made possible by contributions from McMaster’s Faculty of Social Science, the YWCA Hamilton, and Hamilton Chamber of Commerce. The Academic Women’s Mentorship lecture series is funded by a grant from President Patrick Deane’s Forward with Integrity initiative.


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