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What do women leaders want? A fair approach to DE&I

5 minute read

What do women leaders want? A fair approach to DE&I

By: Sovereign Insurance

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In the business world, women leaders do a great many things. For decades, studies have shown women leaders help increase productivity, enhance collaboration, inspire organizational dedication and improve fairness.1 

While some progress has been made, there’s still a long way to go for gender parity in leadership roles in most Canadian companies. Statistics Canada data shows that for all occupations, men held 64.6% of senior management positions in 2022, while women held 32.5%.

How do brokerage firms measure up? The 2023 Canadian Underwriter Diversity and Inclusion survey, sponsored by Sovereign Insurance, found that among the 81% of companies with at least some diversity in their senior leadership, 63% report having women represented. Most brokers (84%) agree they must address diversity to be a successful business, so it’s safe to say they will continue to support gender diversity. 

That’s the good news. The challenge – and call to arms – is not only increasing women’s representation but having a fair approach to diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) so women leaders stay. 

Globally, women are demanding more from work, and they’re leaving their employers in unprecedented numbers to get it, according to the latest Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey2, in partnership with LeanIn.Org. To put the scale of the problem in perspective, the report states for every woman at the director level who gets promoted to the next level, two women directors are choosing to leave their company. 

While their reasons for leaving may vary, some of the main factors are related to DE&I. The study found that women leaders are 1.5 times as likely as men at their level to have left a previous job because they wanted to work for a company that was more committed to DE&I. However, compared with men at their level, “women leaders do more to support employee well-being and foster DEI – work that dramatically improves retention and employee satisfaction but is not formally rewarded in most companies,” the report states. 

In fact, 40% of women leaders say their DE&I work isn’t acknowledged at all in performance reviews. “Spending time and energy on work that isn’t recognized could make it harder for women to advance. It also means that women leaders are stretched thinner than men in leadership.” In the study, 42% of women leaders say they are burned out, compared to 31% of men at their level. 

What’s the way forward? 

There are many elements to making a workplace more equitable – fair pay is perhaps the most obvious one – but companies should also look at making their DE&I work itself more equitable. 

As career expert Kara Dennison notes in Forbes, women work more hours each year than men on extra tasks outside their roles3, including DE&I work. “How often are these extra credit tasks discussed and rewarded during the performance review process or given to male leaders?” writes Dennison. “Leaders need to ensure that the women in their workplaces receive adequate credit for their work or even unburdened from them. Empower your workers to say no to unfair tasks.” 

McKinsey & Company points out the Catch-22: When women devote extra time to sitting on DE&I committees or organizing events to educate others about sexism, racism, or homophobia, they’re not doing their actual job and working with career sponsors who could help them rise to leadership positions in their organization.4

Maria McKay, who works in client development at McKinsey & Company, says companies can develop successful DE&I programs that don’t exhaust those that they’re supposed to support, that create an inclusive environment for all employees and lead to better financial and operational performance.

“Tasks that help others are erroneously viewed as a ‘labour of love’ and something women and racialized employees do because they are passionate about them, rather than a critical component of creating a diverse, inclusive work environment,” McKay says in a recent McKinsey article. “The activities can become more extra housework that is carried out by a few people rather than being shared across all people and levels of an organization.” 5

Her message to organizations is to “do better.” It’s critical to understand the impact of expecting women to do extra work that reinforces stereotypes about their capabilities and contributions, but then evaluating them against the same parameters as men who don’t participate in that extra work.

As organizations continue their DE&I journeys (and indeed, brokerage firms are, with 85% of brokers saying their organization has diversity plans), they must ensure women aren’t shouldering this “invisible” work. If the goal of DE&I is to give everyone fair and equal opportunities, the work itself must be fair and equitable. 

1 American Psychological Association, “Women leaders make work better: Here’s the science behind how to promote them,” March 23, 2023 
2 McKinsey & Company, “Women in the Workplace 2022,” Oct. 18, 2022 
3  Forbes, “Businesses Succeed With Women In Leadership: It’s Time To Make The Workplace More Equitable For Women,” Dec. 15, 2022 
4,5 McKinsey & Company, “Most companies are taking the wrong approach to DE&I – here’s how to get it right,” April 14, 2023