STATE OF: Women in the Workforce

The discussion around women in the workforce has changed dramatically in the last few decades. Initially, this topic concerned the ability of women to be productive workers in a variety of settings; this misogynistic and sexist worldview has, thankfully, mostly obsolesced. 

But the fact remains that women in the workforce are still often regarded as a special group. The existence of this report is, itself, evidence that women are still employed, hired, recruited, laid off, and paid differently than their male counterparts. Every year, studies are conducted to measure the wage gap, or to compare the frequency of promotions between genders, or to reflect on the ongoing underutilization of women in the workforce. 

The goal of many such discussions is to reiterate sameness, capability, and reliability—to confirm that women are just as competent and productive workers as men. But this treatment—the isolation of women as a special group—makes it difficult to discuss how women are, indeed, different from many of the men they may work with and what that means for a company. It’s only in recent years that this difference, often called diversity, has come to be seen as not only an advantage but a necessity for the modern organization. 

Mona Forster, Strategic Advisor at Foran Mining, Director & Chair at Women in Mining BC 1
Michele Bush, Career Coach & Business Advisor at Meglyn Consulting 2
Jasmina Dedovic, Sales Manager Western Canada at ACO 3
Jessica Miles, Senior Recruiter at Goldbeck Recruiting 4
Alessia Pagliaroli, Senior Recruiter at Goldbeck Recruiting 5
Karen Epp, Senior Recruiter at Goldbeck Recruiting 6

It’s important to note that these interviewees, while approaching this discussion from different perspectives and with different experiences, can’t account for the experiences of all women in the workforce. Age, race, rank, industry, and more will impact how a given woman experiences employment. As such, the ideas discussed in this report should be considered prompts for further elaboration but not as absolutes or universal truths. 


Merit-Based Excellence

There has always been an immense weight attached to women in the workforce. People have always had opinions on the capability, competency, and value of women in any role. There are still men in positions of power that, even today, believe a woman’s place is with her children. 

For many women, today’s fight is to transcend the gender identity card altogether. Women don’t want to be identified as “a great manager, for a woman”; as more women than ever obtain world class education and work experience, they want to be measured on their merit. 

“When someone is capable, gender doesn’t matter. Age doesn’t matter,” says Michele Bush, Career Coach & Business Advisor at Meglyn Consulting.2 

As this idea is slowly embraced, it’s becoming clear that gender diversity within a team is an incredible asset. 

“I’m certainly focused on bringing more women into the mining industry in general. Not just in leadership roles, but at all levels,” says Mona Forster, Strategic Advisor at Foran Mining. “The teams I’ve worked with that were more balanced from an experience and gender perspective were more productive. And frankly, those teams were also great to work with.”1

“It’s about creating a diversity of thought; a diversity of experience. That’s the whole piece,” adds Forster.1

Indeed, diversity illustrates the value of difference. While women have historically been fighting to prove their similarities with men—and therefore, their own value and competency by male-centric standards—there could actually be important differences that make female employees uniquely valuable. 

Bringing together a host of different perspectives allows a team to account for and manage challenges with a fresh, holistic perspective.

“I believe that women can bring an important perspective on the human impact of business decisions,” says Jasmina Dedovic,Sales Manager Western Canada at ACO. “That can only benefit companies. This is why I feel women need to be confident in their abilities; we can’t let stereotypical roles or sexist traditions define our paths.”3

Therefore, organizations should embrace a diverse team if for no other reason than the bottom line. Fresh, dynamic thinking pays. 

“Changing this male dominated culture is the key to making everyone successful,” says Dedovic. “And if you can hard-code greater gender diversity into your culture, it’ll stay there for years to come.”3

The Pandemic’s Impact on Women in the Workforce

The COVID-19 pandemic was a scourge upon women’s employment across Canada. According to RBC, 10 times more women than men fell out of the workforce between February 2020 and January 2021.7 Further, women have been slower to rejoin the workforce as the economy recovers.8 Additionally, McKinsey reports that more women than men are suffering from extreme burnout and that work-related burnout is still on the rise.9

The rates at which women were forced out of work and have rejoined the workforce varies greatly between geographical region, race, industry, age, and rank. But it seems the pandemic will likely represent a period of serious damage to the career development of millions of women.10 

“In my experience, the pandemic has exacerbated the amount of domestic responsibilities falling on the shoulders of women,” says Jessica Miles, Senior Recruiter at Goldbeck Recruiting. “Caring for sick or isolating family members can keep women out of the office for weeks. This undoubtedly has a negative impact on their careers.”4

According to Global Citizen, “staying out of the labour market for too long could have a ‘scarring effect’ on women’s skill sets and hamper their ability to land a job in a rapidly changing work environment in which digital technologies and informal networking both play a crucial role.”11

There is a silver lining, however. Those advances in technology and the normalization of remote work has made it easier for women to carry out their domestic responsibilities without taking time off work. 

“People are becoming more open about their personal requirements in interviews and at work,” says Bush. “If they need to balance childcare or to work remotely, people are more willing to ask for flexibility. That conversation isn’t shameful or hidden anymore. This is important for women moving into leadership roles, because it gives them more opportunity  to balance work, personal and family.”2

Flexibility and remote work options have become deal-breakers for many candidates. Though many companies are still deciding if they’re willing to embrace this new mode of work, the benefits for people with demanding domestic responsibilities are clear. 

“I’ve had multiple candidates request remote work,” says Karen Epp, Senior Recruiter at Goldbeck Recruiting. “It’s just easier with kids. This request is much more common now; it’s also the reality that remote work can make for a much more pleasant work-life balance. That really matters to people.”6

Remote work doesn’t address the root problem of inequitable domestic responsibilities, but it does mean that women may be able to continue career development where prior to the pandemic it would have been impossible. 

“Before the pandemic, it was absolutely frowned upon in most workplaces to request flexibility for school pickups or days home with sick kids,” says Miles. “The pandemic has proven that people can effectively work from home; companies can’t really make the same arguments to deny those requests for flexibility.”4

COVID also brought on an era of soul-searching for many workers, regardless of gender. 

“People are taking a new approach to work. Instead of looking for the same type of role at a new company, they’re asking, what can I do differently? What are my options? Where can I take this knowledge and experience and how can I create my own career path?” says Bush.2 

As such, while it remains challenging for many women to re-enter the workforce, trends indicate they may be able to not only angle for work they are truly passionate about, but also be more willing to ask for working arrangements that allow them to succeed at work and at home.

First Hand: Old Biases Die Hard

Until there are more women in decision-making positions, sexist bias will still find its way into the recruitment process (and it may never truly disappear). While recruiters do everything they can to mitigate the bias of their clients or potential candidates, there are some cases which remain impossible to avoid.

For a recent placement, Alessia Pagliaroli, Senior Recruiter at Goldbeck Recruiting, hand selected a group of top tier talent for a senior role at a company during its acquisition. The company’s previous owner, while stepping back to take an advisory role, still held a large share of company stock and was, therefore, granted access to the recruitment process. He was, after all, the one who had helmed the company for many years to this point.

“I sent a fantastic candidate, a woman, in for a meeting with this person. It was clear she was the perfect candidate for the job and she was excited about it,” says Pagliaroli, “but she left that meeting absolutely furious.”5

The company representative had, in their meeting, asked several questions which are illegal to bring up in an employment interview.

“She immediately let me know that he asked if she was married, if she had children, or wanted more children,” says Pagliaroli.5 

The candidate was so upset by the sexist tack of the company representative’s questioning that she backed out of the running. She made the choice to seek employment elsewhere. 

“I had to handle this situation delicately,” says Pagliaroli. “So I asked this man if he had asked these questions of the candidate. And he denied everything.”5

Not only did the representative deny everything—he called the candidate a liar.

In the end, the company ended the recruitment contract altogether. 

“Other representatives at the company let me know that they had been happy with the recruitment process, but that this stakeholder was angered by the situation and insisted they find another recruiter,” says Pagliaroli.5 

In this scenario, the company representative damaged two potentially productive working relationships beyond repair and forced the company to undertake the recruitment process all over again. 

Challenges Facing Women in Recruitment

A look at the challenges facing women through the course of recruitment belies a problem decades in the making: while more companies are willing to embrace or specifically seek out female candidates, a systemic shortage of candidates and persistent stereotyping still plagues the process. 

“As recruiters, we are actively trying to fight bias,” says Pagliaroli. “We present the best qualified candidates whether they are male or female. But when a client asks for female candidates at the executive or senior management levels in certain industries, it’s very difficult to find people.”5

It’s not for a lack of talented female candidates. It’s for a systemic lack of experience. This is especially true for women of colour, who “lose ground” at every step of the corporate ladder to both white women and men of colour.9

“There is a huge gap in the experience levels between men and women,” says Pagliaroli. “This is because, over the course of many, many years, nobody invested in women.”5

Miles shares the same concern. At higher levels, clients are often trying to poach talent directly from competitors. But, as yet, women are typically under-represented in the workforce at the executive rank.

“It becomes very difficult to find female candidates when recruiting from certain industries,” says Miles. “I’m trying to meet the needs of my client but they’re often looking for experience that only male candidates have had the opportunity to develop.”4

This dearth of highly experienced female candidates at senior and executive levels is the result of decades of discrimination and will likely take many years to rectify. To support the development of female employees, companies must intentionally support their career paths. 

“Companies need to be nurturing female employees and promoting internally to help fix this problem,” says Miles. “Once it’s more common to find women in these types of roles, it’ll be simpler for recruiters to encourage that gender diversity.”4

Challenges Facing Women in the Workplace

Things are undoubtedly better for working women today than they have been in the past. But that doesn’t mean the work is done. Women are still regularly discriminated against in the workplace—this is especially true for women of colour—and their career development can suffer as a result.9 

“In certain industries, it’s still very difficult for women to break through and establish themselves,” says Miles. “Especially in trades-based businesses, like heavy industry, women are scrutinized and doubted in ways men aren’t.”4

The challenges women face can begin in the early stages of recruitment and continue for the entirety of their careers.

“It’s also true that a female candidate’s appearance can have a real impact on how they are perceived by employers,” adds Miles. “It’s an extra hurdle for women to manage; whether they’re too conventionally attractive or have tattoos, their appearance can factor into how they’re treated. It’s absurd.”4

Once in a position, women still often find themselves at a disadvantage when it comes to salary—as of 2018, women typically made $0.87 for every dollar made by men.8 While the wage gap has undeniably shrunk over recent decades, women are still typically underpaid in comparison to male counterparts. 

A recent Globe and Mail report shared that the wage gap between male and female equity partners at Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP averaged about $370,000, or around 25%. To their credit, when considering lawyers called to the bar in the last 20 years, this gap shrank to just 9%. While demonstrating improvement, a clear problem still persists. This, of course,does not begin to address how the wage gap may manifest among lower income or unskilled workers.12

This gap is, itself, unjust but it also has far reaching impacts. 

“I have typically found men to earn more money than women,” says Pagliaroli. “So when the kids are at home because schools are closed and one parent needs to be present, it almost always becomes the woman’s responsibility, in part because she makes less.”5

Miles agrees. 

“Things are improving for women in the workplace overall, but there’s still a long way to go. The responsibility of childcare still mostly falls to women, so that double shift—eight hours in the office, plus eight hours of domestic work—still exists,” Miles adds.4

This inequitable division of responsibility existed well before the COVID-19 pandemic, too. What’s worse: the number of women required to stay home despite their wishes to continue working may be under-reported because these individuals aren’t actively looking for work. 

“They’ve just chosen not to go get a job because they were in a situation where they couldn’t leave their domestic responsibilities,” says Pagliaroli.5 A women’s rights advocate from Oxfam Canada champions a national daycare program as the first step to equitable access to the workforce.10

The challenge of balancing work and often demanding home lives is only exacerbated by workplace hostility toward these realities: rightly or wrongly, women may need more flexibility from work.

“I see companies all but intentionally creating toxic environments for women with demanding home lives, even through the course of recruiting,” says Pagliaroli. “For example, companies will hire to replace a woman on maternity leave and when she returns to work she finds herself with less responsibilities and even less support from the team ”

To help surmount these challenges and others, Dedovic singles out the importance of a mentor. A mentor can not only share information and advice, but back women up if they find themselves in a difficult situation. 

“I recommend finding a mentor. It’s important to find someone you can trust—especially if you’re just starting out,” says Dedovic. “This person doesn’t need to also be a woman; they just need to act as your sounding board, to listen to you and to share their experiences with you.”3

Before approaching a possible mentor, women need to know what they’re looking for and what they need from that relationship. 

“What do you want to do? Who do you want to be? How do you want to be perceived? How do you know what’s truly important to you?” says Dedovic. “It could be your ethics or integrity; it could be learning to stand your ground and own your knowledge. Finding inner strength and confidence is incredibly important for everyone, but especially for young women.”3

First Hand: A Poor Choice of Entertainment

While the severity of sexism in the workplace has probably lessened over the last few decades, unconscious biases still exist. And they can manifest in incredibly blunt and obviously inappropriate manners. 

Before the pandemic, Dedovic attended a sponsored trade show event for an industry where women are underrepresented in the workforce. Events like these are typically sponsored by companies present at the trade show. 

“Myself and a few other women walked into an event—an event meant for professional development and networking—to see a handful of very scantily clad young women go-go dancing on the stage,” says Dedovic. “It was absolutely stunning; we were appalled. How had this happened? Who had approved this?”3

The evening’s “entertainment” had been hired by the event sponsor to dance for event attendees. This was shocking and uncomfortable for the female attendees. 

“I knew right away that I was not interested in going into business with the gentleman that hired those dancers,” says Dedovic. “I’d never even met him, but I felt this was so disrespectful and inappropriate; I didn’t believe he would treat me or other women with the respect we deserve.”3

Dedovic took her concerns to the trade show organizers, the event co-sponsor  and alerted her company’s president. Other trade show attendees—men—felt similarly: the event entertainment was extremely inappropriate. One man in particular stood up and addressed the issue head on, which speaks to how everyone needs to respond to these types of inappropriate actions.

As penance (when asked), the company issued a formal apology to attendees and started a fund to support the education of women in that industry. 

Greater Representation and the Closing Wage Gap

While some of the challenges facing women in the workforce can feel insurmountable, it’s important to recognize that things are indeed improving. The wage gap has narrowed over the last few decades, for example.13 This demonstrates the willingness of industry to shed those vestigial systems of discrimination. As a result, more women are taking leadership positions and are being paid fairly; from there, things can snowball.9

“Visibility is critical. Seeing people of different genders, different ages; anyone in positions that would have traditionally been seen differently,” says Bush. “That kind of visibility is becoming more common in heavy equipment and skilled trades today. Young women are going into industries like engineering, for example, more frequently. And this is important; it really matters that young women can see themselves represented in those roles.”2

This is true for all ranks: if women are represented, more women will feel comfortable pursuing lucrative and fulfilling but, to date, “non-traditional” roles. 

“Yes, it’s important for women to see themselves in CEO and senior leadership positions, as well as other roles that interest them,” adds Bush. “Today, it’s less of an anomaly to meet a female CEO. We don’t need to be making those big statements about “traditional” or “non-traditional” roles. We need to just recognize them as typical.”2

Recognizing Excellence Regardless of Gender

It’s undeniably positive that more companies are specifically seeking out female talent to diversify their teams. This brings a greater perspective to any department and creates opportunity for more women and people of colour, two groups historically discriminated against in the workplace. 

But not all companies are seeking out female talent for the right reasons. Stereotyping—or, if you will, positive stereotyping—is still boxing women in.

“When it comes to finances, many companies tend to prefer women in leadership positions,” says Epp. “Even in male dominated industries, like construction or engineering, it’s becoming common to choose women for their finance leads. The justification for this preference seems to be rooted in the notion that women are more organized than men. This is, of course, it’s own problematic generalization.”6

Assuming women are better at multitasking, organization, or attention to detail ultimately just perpetuates the same gendered biases that have kept women at a disadvantage in the workforce for decades. 

“As a recruiter, I do my best not to discriminate against any candidate; I always just send the most qualified talent,” says Epp. “But it’s an interesting obstacle to deal with as people make a concerted effort to become more diverse—if for the wrong reasons.”6

There has perhaps only been a pivot, rather than a disposal of stereotypes; the assumption that women are more organized than men, for example, is one reason so many women were historically only hired into administrative roles. Just because these candidates are hired into more senior roles doesn’t mean the bias isn’t harmful—especially if it contributes to keeping women out of strategic, decision making roles. 

“I’ve also had clients request female candidates specifically,” says Miles. “But when I asked why, they said they found women to be more organized than men. This is exactly the same kind of stereotyping that boxes women into traditional roles.”4

First Hand: Moving Past Appearances

Irrelevant as it may be to the matter at hand, appearances continue to play a key role in how a candidate is perceived. This is true for men and women, but it’s reasonable to suggest that a woman’s appearance is more likely to impact her employment. 

“This was the case for a recent placement of mine,” says Miles. “I had a very talented, highly skilled woman working with motorcycles and trailer parts. She was very experienced, and had recently obtained her journeyman certification. In short, she was a highly employable candidate and an excellent asset to the company.”4

Her manager didn’t see it that way. Despite her skill, her manager often refused to sign off on her time logs, helping build towards her certification; she was also refused a management position despite her clear capability. So she left.

“In the course of presenting her to another company, I called her references,” says Miles. “I asked, how could she improve? Does she have any problem areas?”4

Yes, said her reference.

“She’s someone to be aware of, they said, because she is often judged by her appearance,” says Miles. “What they meant was she had piercings and tattoos, which—despite working in an environment where this may be uniquely suitable by even conservative accounts—apparently was cause for concern.”4 

The candidate’s luck changed with her new position. In her new role, she was immediately given a management title and a team of several skilled male workers, some her senior in years, to oversee. 

“It was encouraging that the candidate’s new employer didn’t see her appearance as an obstacle at all,” says Miles. “They simply recognized her talent for what it was and gave her the opportunity to grow and develop her career. That wouldn’t have happened ten years ago; it wouldn’t have even happened with her last employer.”4

“It doesn’t matter what she looks like,” says Miles. “It matters that she can manage a team and solve problems. And she is more than capable of that.”4

Conclusion: A More Equitable Future

Bias in the workplace has only limited the productivity and profitability of many industries. This is true not only of gender discrimination, but ageism, racism, and more. Thankfully, these biases are coming to be recognized for what they are: failures of judgement. And we are all better for it. 

“Having a diverse team is a good business decision, “ says Epp. “This is why so many younger businesses are embracing diversity—including gender, race, background, and experience. Unfortunately, more conservative businesses aren’t necessarily making the strides we’d hope to see.”6

In the coming years, those willing to embrace diversity seem set to thrive; those unwilling will be left behind. 

Some companies are even facing disciplinary action from clients for not diversifying their team fast enough. For example, Facebook requires half of the lawyers on its external legal team in the US to be diverse; for all its flaws, Facebook threatening to take its business elsewhere has certainly spurred change for the better.14 

Simply put, it doesn’t make sense to not embrace the myriad of talent a field has to offer because of discriminatory biases. 

“Businesses must be flexible. It’s imperative to consider women, different ages, and applicants with different backgrounds,” says Bush. “It’s foolish to simply seek out and hire someone based on whether or not they fit the description of your current employees.”2

Forster agrees.

“It’s about creating an environment to get all those different perspectives. As a manager, as a leader, you’re the decision maker; but you can’t know everything. It’s good business to bring in diverse experiences and perspectives,” Forster says.1

But the responsibility to bring more women into decision making roles in the workforce doesn’t just fall to companies; female candidates,too, must be ambitious, strategic, and proactive as they plan their careers. 

“Part of the reason we’re seeing more women in senior leadership positions is because women are giving themselves permission,” says Bush “to be in those roles, to be ambitious, to pursue new opportunities. Women have the business savvy, they have the knowledge, they have the technical capabilities required to succeed.”2

“Any industry is better when we have a more balanced demographic. In mining, we still have a ways to go,” says Forster. “The focus is often on the leadership level, but my own opinion is that bringing more women into all ranks is a good move. This creates the opportunity to build experience and foster career development within the industry.”

As more women establish themselves in the senior ranks across all industries, the easier it will be to accelerate the career development of the women entering the workforce after them. Those women can act as mentors, enabling more young women to feel confident pursuing successful, ambitious careers in fields traditionally dominated by men. And that, as proven by myriad studies and anecdotal evidence, is better for everyone.15

“My advice to young women is to be proud of who you are and speak up for yourself,” says Dedovic. “It might still feel like workplace sexism or racism is just a fact of life, but it shouldn’t be. Standing up for yourself and others will make a difference.”3