As a final act after 26 years with KPMG Canada, Beth Wilson fired off an e-mail to her female colleagues, clearing the air on what prompted her to pack up and leave.

“I reached for the top rung and failed,” she wrote in a heartfelt exit note in 2017. “Yes, I just used the F-word and I am okay with that.”

The year before, she’d put herself in the running to be the firm’s next chief executive, the first woman to ever do so, but ultimately lost to a man. Because she felt worthy of being a CEO, Ms. Wilson left the firm with nowhere to go. But she wanted women in the ranks below to know that moving on was her choice – and that they should never settle, either.

“I had a lot of boxes ‘checked’ on the competency and experience checklist and I still didn’t make it – that is all the more reason why you should push, and push hard,” she wrote.

The wait was worth it. A few months later, Ms. Wilson was named Canada CEO of Dentons, a global giant in corporate law.

The anecdote is one of many powerful stories in a new book, The Collective Wisdom of High-Performing Women, co-written by those who have made it to the highest echelons of Canadian business. Many are graduates of an annual leadership retreat known as The Judy Project, named after the late Microsoft Canada executive Judy Elder, who helped women embrace their ambition.

Yet, for all their success, the women remain frustrated that there aren’t more of them around. Their advancement in business has been promised since the 1980s, but three decades later, the numbers remain dismal.

In 2018, only 15.8 per cent of executive officer positions in Canada were held by women, according to regulatory filings from 630 companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange. That number has barely changed in four years. At the board level, almost one-third of companies that disclosed still do not have a single female director.

So, they are using the book to take a stand – to say the level of progress is pathetic. “I get really depressed when I look at the numbers,” Ms. Wilson said. They are also calling for a new vision for corporate leadership, one that isn’t solely assessed using traditionally masculine qualities. Far too often, they said, women in business are told to be more aggressive, or more assertive, when leaders should show traits such as courage, honesty and compassion that are proven to make companies successful.

“Modern-day business was invented in the post-war era by men, for men,” Kathleen Taylor, Royal Bank of Canada’s board chair and the former CEO of Four Seasons Hotels, said in an interview. “That’s not nefarious or negative,” she added. “It’s just a fact of life.”

For many years, women did not speak so candidly about the realities they faced rising through the ranks. But in a roundtable discussion ahead of the book’s launch on Wednesday that will include readings from the executive contributors, these leaders said they finally feel there is an opening to push for substantive change.

They are also fed up. It is still common for male executives to want proof that all the effort required to ensure women excel matters to the bottom line, or to argue that it simply will take time to see progress, as more women rise through the promotion pipelines.

“Enough already with the business case,” Ms. Wilson said. “That’s the type of conversation we’re all tired of.”

As for the “pipeline” promise, it has existed for 30 years. Jane E. Kinney, a vice-chair at Deloitte LLP, remembers hearing as far back as the 1980s in accounting that once more women were brought through the door, the senior ranks would eventually change too. “We were hiring 50/50 [male/female] out of school back then, and everyone would say, ‘It’s only a matter of time,’” she said. “The time has passed.”

What’s clear by now, they said, is that women face unique pressures. Mother’s guilt, for one, is something many feel in their bones. Other women, or in-laws, or sometimes even their own mothers will ask, “Should you really be working?”

“Mom guilt can be strong enough to drive us out of the work force,” said Colleen Moorehead, the chief client officer at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP. Research shows the most common time for business women to throw in the towel is when their children are young.

Studies also show that women struggle with asking for, or even inquiring about, pay raises and promotions. That helps to explain why the gender pay gap at several major Canadian companies remains substantial, according to new disclosure data from companies with offices in Britain. Across sectors from engineering to banking, women often made 50 to 70 per cent of men’s wages – though the filings do not reflect whether men and women are receiving equal pay for equal work.

“Women have a very tough time putting a number on the table,” Ms. Moorehead said. And if they are asked to do so by a manager, she said women tend to shrink and punt the question back. “What do you think I’m worth?”

These norms are ingrained since childhood. “We’re nice girls. And money is still a dirty subject,” said Janet Kestin, co-founder of Swim, a creative leadership consultancy, and the former co-chief creative officer of Ogilvy & Mather Toronto. It is a nuance that can be totally lost on male leaders who revel in the tug of war that can be part of negotiation.

And then there is all the baggage that comes with failure. “If you’re a high-performing woman, there are a lot of eyes on you,” Ms. Wilson said. “So you get conditioned along the way to avoid failure. You don’t want to show weakness.”

“When I was unsuccessful in my run at CEO, I feel like I let all kinds of women down,” she added. “There are so few role models.”

Although they are speaking up, they don’t mean to attack. In fact, these leaders advise women to adapt as well, warning them that business is not the meritocracy they were promised it would be. That’s just life.

Would quotas for women at the board or management level help? The thought still makes many of them uneasy. The last thing they want is send the message that their promotions weren’t earned.

The option that gets more support is setting hard, quantifiable targets – all the way down the pipeline. Far too many recommendations over the years have been general ones, they said, such as promoting networking among women. Important, yes. But not nearly tangible enough.

Companies run on metrics. “We’ve got earnings per share targets,” Ms. Taylor said. Why not set similar ones for female leaders?

She is particularly insistent on targets for women running business divisions with P&L (profit and loss) responsibilities. Massaging the diversity statistics by including divisions such as human resources, marketing and communications does no one any favours.

“Don’t tell me about averages,” she tells executives at companies whose boards she sits on. “How many of your women are in roles with operating responsibilities?”

The Globe and Mail, April 7, 2019