While women are industrious and inventive workers, talent and ability are often not enough to break the glass ceiling. In 2020, women occupied just 20% of the 17,996 Canadian board of directors seats. In fact, 59% of boards were men only. These numbers represent just a drop in an already-overflowing statistics bucket. 

Less attention is paid to the leaky pipeline effect: a series of challenges, negative experiences, and discriminatory practices that, over time, “drain away” scores of talented women and prevent them from succeeding in the workplace. Part of what makes the pipeline so challenging for women is its impact on wellbeing — burnout is common, and women may be less likely to come to their managers with mental and physical health concerns if they fear losing out on opportunities.

The leaky pipeline can be hard to notice on a small scale but unmistakable when you consider that only three women are promoted for every four men, and over half of women report discrimination at work.

Luckily, employers are starting to pay attention to diversity, and women are slowly inching their way into senior positions. To fix this leak, employers need to consider the unique challenges women face, what wellbeing looks like for women, and put strategies in place to ensure they are supported in all career stages.

Ongoing challenges and biases in the workforce

There are a few women-specific challenges that employers should not only understand, but actively work to address:

  • Maternity. Pregnancy discrimination is a serious roadblock for women who are, or planning to be, pregnant. Although this type of discrimination is illegal in Canada, it’s still common. In fact, 1 in 3 women report maternity-related discrimination, with many women being “iced out” at work or forced to resign.

    A Moms at Work report found that “maternity leave and the years surrounding it represent the largest single point in which women offramp from corporate organizations . . . [leaving] a gaping hole in the female talent pipeline.”
  • Sexual harassment. While people of any gender can experience sexual harassment, women are by and large the most likely to be targeted. According to an Employment and Social Development Canada report, 94% of people experiencing sexual harassment were women. With many afraid to report incidents out of worry they will be punished professionally, the mental and physical consequences of sexual harassment can’t be understated.

Indeed’s 2023 Building Optimism report found 66% of Canadian women felt they weren’t being paid enough, but under half of women have asked for raises — even though 80% of women who asked were successful (anglophones, in particular, were less likely to ask for raises than francophones). This frustration can be seen in attitudes around the pay gap: 21% of women feel the pay gap will never close. At all levels and across sectors, there is still work to be done to finally close the gender pay gap.

Creating a workforce that promotes and supports women

For employers seeking to retain and develop talent — and create a work culture in which women can thrive and feel valued — consider the following strategies:

What’s next?

These workplace and lifestyle challenges aren’t just impacting work performance and productivity — they’re pushing women into generations of economic and professional stagnation. This reality has consequences for women’s wellbeing and mental health, most notably anxiety, depression, postnatal depression, and burnout.

There are some positives. Just under half of Canada’s labour force is women — up dramatically from only 37% in 1976. As a huge part of the labour force, women are bringing a fresh take to all industries and pushing for more DEI for all women. But to fix the leaky pipeline, employers need to consider women-specific issues and put strategies in place to support women in all phases of their lives.