Thank you, Madam Chair.
Ladies and gentlemen of the committee, thank you for this opportunity to provide my comments on the subject of improving economic prospects for Canadian girls. I hope my comments will be helpful as you continue the study of this important issue.
Although I'm not an expert in the field, as a woman and a mother of three girls and one boy and a business leader, I have some experience to draw from. As CEO of Canada's second-largest credit union, where 72% of our workforce is made up of women, I feel strongly that all levels of our organization should reflect the composition of our workforce and our community.
Last year Coast Capital was named the top organization in Canada by Catalyst for the highest percentage of women in senior executive roles in Canada, with 70% of our executives being women. It's also worth noting that 40% of our board directors and 45% of our leaders below the senior executive are women. We've done this not only because it's the right thing to do, but also because it makes good business sense to have diverse teams.
With that context in mind, I'd like to focus on four areas that I believe are important in improving the prospects of young women in Canada, namely education, financial literacy, internships, and business leadership. Again, coming from an organization that values all types of diversity, I believe my suggestions are applicable not only for young women but also young men in Canadian society.
Starting with education and my own experience, having lived and been educated in three countries, I can say that there is nothing more vital than a strong education for the advancement of young women. While our education system has done great things for our country, I believe strongly that we need to do more to position our young women for success in the 21st century.
Much has been said about the need for greater focus on math and sciences, particularly for young women in high school, and I agree with this position. That said, I believe we're also missing an opportunity to prepare our youth to compete in what will be a radically changed world economic order.
The rise of east and south Asia and Latin America as global economic powerhouses is no longer a possibility; it is a given. Canada, with its rich cultural heritage and historical and increasing ties to Asia, has huge potential to thrive in this new world order, yet our education system, in my experience, has not been sufficiently flexible to recognize and capitalize on this changing tide.
With four children in the school system, I have been concerned that our curriculum, at least in B.C., has not changed substantially in 30 years. History and languages are still oriented toward our European heritage, yet more than 27% of British Columbians were born outside Canada, and more than half of those came from Asia or the Middle East.
We are competing against countries like Australia, where children have the ability to learn Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, and Japanese starting at much earlier ages than when Canadian children typically start to learn a second language. Our history courses typically focus on Europe, and while To Kill a Mockingbird is a wonderful novel, which most people in this room probably studied in grade 10, why are we not looking at the rich cultural and historical literature of countries like China, India, and Japan?
In short, our education system, which should offer the perfect opportunity for young women to learn and think globally, is too narrow in its focus. If we are to prepare Canadian youth to capitalize on the new global realities, our curricula will have to change to reflect those realities. We need to encourage and offer more opportunities for young people to live and learn abroad, we need Canadian curricula to be broader and offer second-language opportunities earlier, and we need to comprehensively expose our children to the history, culture, and economies of the new world. As Canada's population changes and becomes more diverse, this type of education will benefit our children at home and abroad.
I'd like to turn now to my second area of focus, which is again in the realm of education, but in the arena of financial literacy. I was very pleased to see the federal government's focus on financial literacy for Canadians. Given the historical debt loads of Canadians and a volatile world, this is an important topic, and one that all Canadians should be concerned about.
Today we should be educating both women and men to be financially literate at younger ages and to understand the opportunities and pitfalls of finance. They should understand the benefits of saving early, budgeting, and the appropriate use of credit. While financial institutions and other worthy organizations, such as Junior Achievement, have provided some support, given Canadian debt loads and our generally inadequate preparation for retirement, my sense is we're not consistently teaching financial literacy at an early enough age.
As women still tend to be secondary income earners in general, it is crucial that we teach them how to be financially literate and financially independent from an early age.
Turning to youth internship and leadership experiences, I believe this is also a vital way that businesses and governments can help young women develop the leadership, team-playing, networking, and public speaking skills that are critical tools in whatever career paths they choose.
At Coast, our community leadership strategy is to build a richer future for youth in our communities, and this targets youth aged 13 to 24. It's not just about donating money to non-profits; we believe we have an obligation to help the youth in our communities gain leadership and business experience.
We have a wonderful program that I believe is unique in Canada. It annually gives 25 to 30 grade 11 and grade 12 students training in financial services and leadership experience. Through the Coast community youth team program, these students train and work in our branches, but they also help organize and participate in Coast community events. This gives them not only valuable work skills, but also public speaking and leadership experience at an early age.
We have had over 300 students graduate from the program. Several alumni are now full-time employees at Coast in various roles, while others have gone on to pursue careers that require strong financial knowledge and skills. We've also recently introduced a youth advisory council to help deliberate on and allocate a portion of our Community Giving dollars. At Coast we donate 7% of our budgeted pre-tax profit to the communities in which we operate; over $22 million has been invested by Coast over the last five years, so the dollars that are being allocated are quite significant.
The youth council has to carefully analyze proposals to ensure they fit with our giving objectives. Even though this program is new, the feedback on it has been overwhelmingly positive. The participants gain knowledge on business philanthropy and the important role it plays in developing communities. They also gain critical thinking and analysis skills.
Other companies and governments can also help support young girls and boys by sponsoring youth programs or developing their own in-house youth initiatives.
Finally, my fourth area of focus is business leadership. It's important that we help young girls build their self-esteem, encourage them to aim higher in their career choices, and pursue higher education, but we also need to change so that women can better thrive in the workplace. If we don't make significant changes now and help remove the barriers many young women face in the workplace, they will see a disconnect between their expectations and reality and end up being discouraged early in their careers.
Today, as I think we all know, it's still very hard for women to reach the C-suite. While women have made some progress, we still have a long way to go in reaching parity with men. According to a Catalyst survey, women head up only 6% of Canada's Financial Post 500 companies, and, astoundingly, more than 30% of Canadian companies had zero female officers in 2010.
This may be partly due to the continuance of the glass ceiling; however, more and more I honestly believe that many capable young women are opting out before reaching their full potential in their careers because the workplace is not meeting their expectations, either in terms of providing stimulating, meaningful work environments or in enabling them to balance other important aspects of their lives. Business leaders need to change this.
As an industry that employs a large female cohort, credit unions have been very supportive in developing women. While the large Canadian banks have yet to have a woman in their top position, three of the largest five credit unions in Canada have a female CEO, and the CEO of Canada's largest cooperative financial institution is also a very capable woman.
Why is this? Credit unions were created on the principle of members helping members, with a deep-rooted belief in inclusiveness and diversity in the workplace. At Coast this is certainly true. Our employee commitment is to change the way employees feel about work forever, just as our business purpose is to change the way Canadians feel about banking forever. We are very committed to fostering an innovative work environment where everyone can achieve success, regardless of gender, culture, or age.
We also offer very supportive programs to make it easier for our staff to balance work and life challenges. Such programs include wellness programs, flexible work schedules, and return-to-work schedules for those coming back from parental or personal leaves. All of these initiatives are necessary to ensure a diverse workforce that will be engaged and able to do their best.
I'd like to close with the following comments: as government and business leaders, it's important that we create environments where young women can gain the necessary skill sets for the 21st century and thrive in this new economic order. We can do more to help support young women through earlier, creative internships and business experiences that help build self-confidence and skills. Finally, we must look at ways to remove barriers that prevent women from contributing at all levels of our society.
I'd like to thank the House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women for the opportunity to comment on the economic prosperity of young women, and I look forward to reading the final report when it's completed.