Women at work: the B.C. companies leading the way on gender equality

Leadership at the highest level, talent development and family-friendly policies common themes for companies who score high on gender diversity

Lisa Ryan, director of talent management, and Christine Clements, child care director at Ritchie Bros. head office in Burnaby. An in-house daycare has boosted employee recruitment and retention | Rob Kruyt

Progress toward gender parity in the workplace remains agonizingly slow, but some B.C. companies are going above and beyond to promote and retain women – and are reaping the benefits.

“You might think it’s strange for the daycare to report up through the company through [the human resources department],” said Lisa Ryan, director of talent management at Ritchie Bros. Auctioneers. “But we also have a responsibility around attracting and retaining employees, and that’s where the daycare’s made all the difference.”

The Burnaby-based auction company, which has 1,500 employees worldwide, is an outlier among B.C. companies in running its own in-house daycare at a subsidized rate for employees. 

The impetus for creating the daycare came both from employees, who were surveyed prior to the construction of a new building in 2009, and from the top down.

“[CEO] Ravi [Saligram] has made commitments to the board to have more women in leadership, and he has hired several senior-level human resources leaders to meet that commitment,” Ryan said, adding that the daycare is not an extra cost to the company as child-care fees pay for its operation.

Last fall the Minerva Foundation, a B.C. organization that advocates women in leadership positions, was compiling research that showed underwhelming progress in female leadership gains.

Meanwhile, numerous studies have shown that companies with more diverse leadership teams perform better financially and make better decisions.

“We’ve been talking about this for a long time, we’ve been working at it and we’re not seeing huge results,” said Adine Mees, Minerva’s CEO. “What needs to change and shift?”

Instead of just publishing a report, Minerva decided to do something more proactive: the organization created a scorecard for B.C.’s biggest corporations and challenged them to take a diversity pledge, which 12 companies have signed. The participants range from BC Lottery Corp. (BCLC), where women occupy 63% of top positions, to the Jim Pattison Group, where women hold only 11% of senior management jobs.

The chief human resources officers of those companies have been meeting to share knowledge about how to push through B.C.’s persistent glass ceiling. While 36% of the 28 companies surveyed have diversity policies in place, it takes a real commitment to make those policies part of a company’s workplace culture, Mees said.

BCLC doesn’t have a formal diversity policy but has achieved high female representation because it has a strong culture of promoting from within, said Susan Dolinski, vice-president of social responsibility and communications.

The company often uses maternity leaves as a chance to train and promote employees, allowing them to step into a new job for a year, and encourages all employees to do different jobs within the company. 

“When you look at our organization, we have a diverse leadership team,” Dolinski said. “Five out of nine executives are women. It’s a snowball effect – women can see themselves at the top.”

Vancity's board is now made up of six women and three men, and five out of seven members of its executive team are women.

“It’s very powerful to young women entering the workforce to have a CEO and a board chair who are women with families, watching how they kind of do it all,” said Ellen Pekeles, Vancity senior vice-president of operations, who added it’s important to acknowledge that diversity encompasses more than just gender.

Along with family-friendly policies and leadership from company bosses, creating the conditions to progress from an entry-level to a senior job is a common theme for companies that do well in this area. HSBC Canada, which has an equal number of men and women on its board, focuses on developing a diverse talent pipeline. 

It’s the same story for Ritchie Bros., which, as an auctioneer of heavy equipment, has traditionally operated in a male-dominated industry. 

“We have women who work in our yard operations who are progressing toward leadership roles,” Ryan said.