When it comes to women, Canadian companies have an advantage
The rise of a new breed of female-dominated businesses has left Canadian employers grappling with how to keep women in their jobs.
While there are more than 30,000 female-led companies in Canada, only around 20% of them are publicly listed, according to the Association of Women Business Owners.
As a result, women remain largely invisible in Canadian business circles, says Laura Mearns, a partner at McKinsey & Co. She’s also an author of the new book Women Entrepreneurs, which highlights women-owned companies that are pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a female-owned business.
“There are a lot of opportunities to grow female-founded companies, but they’re often ignored because of the lack of visibility,” she says.
“In some cases, women-founded businesses may not even get to market or get traction at all.”
The story of a young woman with an idea and an idea that could change the world is one of the stories Mears is telling in her book, which she co-authored with her husband, Bill, and her daughter, Jillian.
The pair met in the mid-1990s, when Jillian was studying for her Bachelor of Arts in business administration at Ryerson University.
She was a young aspiring entrepreneur, who didn’t have the experience to pitch her ideas.
“She was really shy,” recalls Bill, who has also worked at Ryessons student-run student-owned co-op, The Student Cooperative.
“But she had a big heart and really loved the business.
She had a real sense of passion and a passion for the business.”
“She wanted to change the game,” recalls Jillian, who now lives in Toronto with her partner, Alex, and their two young children.
Their dream was to start a co-operative for women.
The two realized they needed a name and an identity.
“It was pretty obvious we were going to have to do something with women’s business, but we thought it was going to be different from a traditional company,” Bill says.
The couple started the first women-only company in Canada called Women’s Business Network, or WBN.
By 1998, it had over 1,500 members.
They were the first co-ops in Canada to include women in leadership positions, and they were soon receiving recognition for their efforts.
But the story of WBN also shows how the business model can be challenging for some women.
“The women’s co-operation movement in the ’90s was the first one where women started to be involved in decision-making and management in a way that didn’t necessarily align with traditional corporate structures,” says Karen Leach, founder of the Women’s Co-operative Institute of Canada.
“I think the way women started it, the way they took the idea, the ways they got their ideas into the marketplace, it was a challenge.
Women were struggling.”
The women-led movement has expanded to include more women in management positions, but there’s still much work to do.
“Women are still in charge of a lot, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re in charge when it comes time to make decisions,” says Leach.
“And it’s still very much the case that women are not fully represented in management roles.”
Mearn and her husband say they hope their book will help women to become more visible in business circles.
They also hope it will help others understand how to build businesses that can be more successful than the ones they’ve been in.
“When it comes down to it, it’s about building a business that is more than a business for a couple of people,” says Mearnn.
“A business is really a family.
And when you have children, you want to have that family that you can rely on.”