When France announced it was creating a quota requiring corporate boards to have 40-per-cent female directors, Guylaine Saucier was an opponent.
The veteran Canadian corporate director sat on three French company boards at the time – including then chairing the audit committee at food giant Danone – and told media interviewers the quotas would lead to token appointments of unqualified women and reduce respect for experienced women who had earned their positions.
Almost two years later, however, Ms. Saucier says her views are softening – much to her own surprise.
“I’m beginning to evolve,” she confesses. “Yes, they appointed some token women, no doubt about that. But at the same time, I do see coming on board women that really were not known and are really good … And I’m sure I can bet you that they would never have been invited to boards without this legislation … I am more pleasantly surprised than I thought I would be.”
Ms. Saucier is not alone. While quotas remain a difficult sell for many in the business community, there is clear evidence of softening views around the world. Legislation to boost women on boards has spread like wildfire as lawmakers globally grow frustrated with the minuscule representation of women at the very top of the corporate pyramid.
Diversity champions say there is more at stake than basic fairness. Research has suggested diverse groups make better decisions because more perspectives are considered. Some studies have found better performance by firms with more women on their boards, although those findings are contradicted by other studies that find no single factor can explain corporate success.
Since 2008, at least nine countries – including Norway, Spain, France and Italy – have adopted some form of quota requirements for diversity on corporate boards, according to an April report (pdf) by women’s advocacy group Catalyst.
Other countries don’t have fixed quotas, but have set targets for women that companies are either required to comply with or must explain publicly why they are not.
(Find a slide show of global initiatives to increase the number of women on boards here.)
About 20 countries without quotas – including the United States, Britain, Australia and Germany – have adopted some form of requirement for companies to discuss board diversity in their annual shareholder filings in the hope that greater discussion and disclosure will lead to more action.
“There really is a global conversation going on right now about the issue of women on boards,” says Deborah Gillis, chief operating officer at Catalyst.
And then there’s Canada. While reforms swirl outside our borders, the issue has received no legislative action at home. There are no requirements for private sector boards to hire women as directors, and no requirements for companies to discuss their diversity practices or plans.
Progress in the meantime has been glacial. In Canada, women accounted for about 10 per cent of directors on boards of publicly traded companies in 2011 – a proportion that was unchanged from 2009, according to Catalyst.
The Globe and Mail’s annual Board Games report on corporate governance found 41 per cent of companies in the benchmark S&P/TSX index still have no women on their boards, although that is an improvement from 45 per cent last year. It is unclear whether there is permanent improvement, however, because 41 per cent had no women in 2009, and the proportion then worsened in 2010 and 2011.
The result of such lacklustre progress is that even many who don’t support mandatory quotas for women are growing keen to see a national study or task force consider various policy options to encourage progress on one of the most intractable corporate governance concerns of the past decade.
Patrick O’Callaghan, the Vancouver-based co-founder of the not-for-profit Women on Board mentoring program, says he doesn’t support quotas for women on boards, but he nonetheless believes Canada needs to develop a national plan to advance women on boards. He argues even good private sector initiatives don’t replace the need for government leadership.
“One of the problems for us in Canada is that we have no Canadian position on this … No one has brought together a bunch of people who said, ‘Okay, here’s the position we should take,’ ” Mr. O’Callaghan says.
Other countries have seen marked improvement. In France, where mandatory quotas will take effect in 2017, women comprised 16.6 per cent of directors in 2011, up from 9.1 per cent just two years earlier. Even without the threat of pending quotas, Australia and Britain both saw rapid increases in female directors.