Growing the defence labour pool is ‘mission critical’

Unintended barriers are limiting women’s full participation in the defence and security sectors, restricting hiring, hampering retention and undercutting corporate profitability.

Françoise Gagnon, chief executive officer of ADGA Group, a professional services and technology company, speaks at the 2019 Best Defence show in London, Ont. Mark Spowart Photo
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The stark assessment by Françoise Gagnon, chief executive officer of ADGA Group, an Ottawa-based professional services and technology company, comes at a time when many defence and aerospace businesses are struggling to find sufficient talent.

“The under-representation of women in our sector has serious implications for the long-term effectiveness and sustainability of our industry,” she told an audience at Best Defence, an annual conference and trade show in London, Ont., held Nov. 5-6.

With the national unemployment rate hovering around four per cent, companies must find better ways to appeal to women, who make up 48 per cent of the workforce and 65 per cent of university graduates.

Exactly how many women hold down positions in the more than 60,000 jobs across over 900 Canadian defence and security companies isn’t clear, she acknowledged, but one look at any C-suite, board room, shop floor or sector conference will find women significantly underrepresented, observed Gagnon, who joined the defence sector in 2014 and was often a lone female voice at the executive level.

“Growing our labour pool is something…that is mission critical for our industry,” she said. “The good news is, our industry is very familiar with mission critical projects and excels at delivering them.”

Research from Deloitte, McKinsey, Harvard and others in recent years has shown the dramatic impact a diverse and inclusive workplace can have on corporate profitability. Companies with gender diversity on their executive teams and boards of directors perform far better than those without. Moreover, employees who feel included in decision-making are 67 per cent more engaged in the business, she said, citing a 2013 Deloitte report.

“Put simply, more women on your team increases your bottom line,” she said. “The numbers and math are undeniable. A focus on inclusive diversity creates powerful employee engagement … [and] an engaged workforce performs better, yields higher client satisfaction and ultimately drives higher revenues.”

Gagnon serves as chair of a government subcommittee for a defence industry advisory group on gender diversity comprised of industry and government leaders. Over the past year, the committee has held focus groups, partnered with organizations like Women in Defence and Security and the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada (AIAC), and conducted a survey of more than 200 respondents. The full findings will be disclosed in a report to be tabled in December.

But from the financial sector to health care, the legal profession and government, sectors that have made a decision to change the status quo “have been transformed by their intentional pursuit of inclusive diversity. Our sector just needs to commit to removing unintended barriers that thwart women’s progress in the industry and begin that shift,” she said.

Gagnon offered a road map of best practices drawn from some of those sectors to help defence and aerospace companies improve gender equality and diversity. Obvious steps include creating specific targets and goals that can be tracked and measured, and are backed with adequate funding; ensuring inclusive diversity is seen as a core company function with explicit and visible top-level leadership; removing bias from hiring and promotion practices; and providing all employees with training in unconscious bias, gender and diversity.

“It all starts with the hiring process. And research has proven that de-gendering job descriptions leads to increased numbers of women applicants, which yields to more women being hired,” she noted.

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Companies can also create mentorship and sponsorship programs for high potential women and offer leadership and networking opportunities, which tend to bolster retention. ADGA has designed a program for women that provides learning offered by women on topics such as financial literacy, negotiating skills and public speaking that help prepare them for increased responsibility in management roles.

And if a company lacks a sufficient number of women in its pipeline, be proactive and create bursaries for women in science, technology, engineering and math at local colleges, she advised.

Finally, review all human resources policies to ensure they are supportive of all staff – dissatisfaction with harassment resolution processes and reintegration from maternity leave are two common complaints, according to an AIAC survey.

“By implementing these best practices and being intentional about this…you will be moving the yardstick forward,” said Gagnon. “There are risks and costs to action, but they are far less than the long-range risk of comfortable inaction … We are all challenged by skilled labour shortages. Women offer an underutilized talent pool for our industry, which in turn is a significant opportunity to apply a strategic and intentional approach to inclusive diversity that can be transformative.”

Failure to act will leave companies out of step with their primary customer, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), which is striving for greater gender equity as part of a defence policy that mandates increasing the number of women within the CAF to 25 per cent over the next eight years, she noted.

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