The federal government has finally announced the membership of a long-awaited committee to offer advice on how to improve Canada’s dismal track record on appointing women to corporate boards, naming 23 senior business leaders to oversee the task. But while the participants are impressive, their mandate remains vague.
In an announcement on Friday, Rona Ambrose, the Minister responsible for the Status of Women, said the council will “provide advice on how industry can increase women’s representation on corporate boards” and will suggest how industry and government can measure progress on the initiative and “what tools, if any, government should employ to achieve this goal.”
That mandate leaves much scope for interpretation. The committee is not a task force with an obligation to produce a public report, propose recommendations and set out a path to reform that could lead the business community toward a common strategy for Canada. So what it ultimately does will depend in large part on how ambitiously the members choose to interpret their role.
In Britain, a blue-chip committee headed by Lord Davies of Abersoch produced a seminal report in 2011, which rejected the idea of mandatory quotas for women on boards, but instead recommended that Britain’s largest companies voluntarily aim to have boards on which at least 25 per cent of the directors would be women. The Davies committee said companies should have to disclose their diversity plans annually to shareholders – a requirement that was legislated last year. Between 2011 and 2012, the proportion of women on FTSE 100 boards climbed to 15.6 per cent from 12.5 per cent. Australia, meanwhile, has taken a similar approach, with equally impressive results.
Canada – where women account for 10 per cent of directors on public company boards – likewise needs a concrete national strategy. The new committee has the business credibility to play a role similar to that of the Davies committee. It should find the ambition to do so.