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Wanted: Women on Canadian Boards

By Josephine Victoria Yam

In Canada, we have so much to celebrate with the world today, International Women's Day 2017. After all, Canadian women have achieved impressive strides in the political, economic, academic, cultural and social domains of our society. According to a 2014 Government of Canada report, women:

+ comprise 47% of the Canadian workforce
+ earn more than 50% of all Canadian university degrees
+ represented 47% of students in business and management programs at the master’s level in 2010, and
+ received 34.5% of the Masters of Business Administration (MBAs) given in 2011.

So let’s raise our glasses twice or even thrice, right? No, not just yet.

Let the Numbers Speak for Themselves

When it comes to women serving on boards, the numbers are not as rosy, perhaps even discouraging. While a York University report notes that women comprised 44% of nonprofit board seats, the Canadian government’s report discloses disappointing figures relating to corporate and public boards, in which women represent:

+ 10.3% of board seats of top publicly-traded companies
+ 15.9% of board seats on FP500 companies
+ 0.0% of board seats on 40% of FP500 companies, and
+ 31% of federal board appointments to Crown corporations, agencies, boards and commissions.

We hear the same strains of slow music, a few years later.

In Fall 2016, the Canadian Securities Administrators (CSA) reported on the representation of women on boards and in executive positions based on the “comply or explain” disclosures provided by non-venture public companies in Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia, Nunavut, Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan and Yukon. Here’s what the CSA found:

+ Women representation on boards increased by a measly 1% compared to the prior year from 11% to 12%
+ Only 15% of the 521 vacant board seats were filled with women hires, and
+ 45% of companies did not have a single woman on their boards.

Alas, when it comes to women on boards, Canada still has a long way to go.

Behind the Numbers

What gives? The underlying reasons for these discouraging numbers are numerous. The Canadian government’s report highlights the reasons:

+ Lack of focus on presenting talented female candidates by executive search firms
+ Lack of an executive-level commitment to gender diversity
+ Inadequate information about the availability of qualified women candidates
+ Predominantly male leadership networks that tend to choose candidates like themselves
+ Women having limited leadership networks and few high-level mentors, which restrict their opportunities for senior decision-making roles, and
+ Women lacking role models that can inspire them to pursue high-level board positions.

Why Have More Women on Boards Anyway?

Some of you may be asking: why should we have more women on boards anyway? And that’s a valid question to raise.

The Conference Board of Canada answered this very question so persuasively, citing both symbolic and practical reasons for doing so.

“Symbolically, a signal is sent to all stakeholder groups, most of which have very diverse membership, indicating that their voices will be heard at the top and that their perspectives are important to the organization. As our society, our labour force, and our corporate shareholders themselves become more diverse, this will become a more personal and compelling issue. Until now, the term “diversity” has often been interpreted as the promotion of outward, or visible, diversity. But at a practical level, it is inward, invisible diversity that matters: the range of different gifts, skills, experiences, views, and perspectives that individuals possess in every culture and organization. The use of outer differences as an indicator of inner diversity, though imperfect, can prove useful in wise hands.”

Diversity on boards, represented by having women on boards, facilitates “board unity, activism and independence”, which are intrinsic to good governance. Good governance in turn improves organizational effectiveness and produces increased profitability. In the same vein, a survey by the Institute of Corporate Directors reported that board gender diversity contributes to better governance and decision-making. Indeed, having more women on boards has become an imperative for good governance.

A Call to Action: Accelerating Gender Parity

In fact, the Canadian government knows that having more women on boards is a strategic competitive advantage for Canada nationally and internationally. In its “Good for Business: A Plan to Promote More Women on Canadian Boards”, the government set out a national goal of 30% women on boards by 2019 in the corporate and public sectors. That’s served as a compelling aspirational objective as provincial and territorial governments have taken their cue from the feds and have taken action on this front.

But how about action from us citizens?

The International Women’s Day 2017 celebration also calls us to take urgent and concrete action through its #BeBoldForChange campaign. Action that will move the needle beyond the measly 1% increase of women representation in boards. Action that will support women as they take on board roles in the corporate, government and nonprofit sectors.

Some examples in the #BeBoldForChange campaign include:

+ appoint a woman to the board
+ measure and report on gender parity gaps
+ keep gender on the agenda
+ call it out when women are excluded
+ monitor the gender pay gap
+ call for diverse candidate shortlists, and
+ embrace inclusive leadership

So go ahead and #BeBoldForChange.

As the Conference Board of Canada so eloquently advised:

“Women on boards is not only the ‘right’ thing to do, it is also the ‘bright’ thing to do”.

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