And would she serve on a board as a “quota” member? Ms. Rahl says she believes she has already been chosen for boards at least in part because she is a woman. “I’m not offended,” she says. “If it’s somebody who clearly doesn’t have the credentials and wouldn’t have been selected if not for the fact they’re a woman, I think that’s offensive. But if it is ‘we’re looking for a qualified candidate and you’ll get an extra point for being a woman,’ I’m not offended by that. It works against us in so many other ways over the years.”
The sentiment is echoed by Beatrix Dart, a director on the board of construction firm Ellis Don who runs the Initiative for Women in Business at the University of Toronto. She says she would join a board that chose her because it wanted a female director as long as she thought she had the skills to perform as well as other, male directors. “At least it provides the opportunity to showcase myself, which I wouldn’t have otherwise,” she says. “I’d say, ‘Okay, let me prove myself to you.’ ”
Nonetheless, many still reject legislation, arguing the idea is either offensive or unnecessary. Gail Cook-Bennett, chair of insurance giant Manulife Financial, said quotas unfairly tie a board’s hands, and companies like hers do not need more restrictions on their operations.
She believes companies can set targets for themselves, then make good use of recruiting firms to watch the marketplace for strong female candidates for boards. Manulife is one of the earliest signatories to the Catalyst Accord, a program launched this year by the advocacy group that asks companies to set diversity targets for their boards, aiming for at least 25-per-cent women by 2017. The insurer now has five women on its 18-member board, or 28 per cent, an increase from two women three years ago.
“We had no problem in stating an internal goal [for women] here at Manulife,” Ms. Cook-Bennett says.
The Institute of Corporate Directors, which represents over 5,000 board directors in Canada, has argued the issue should be tackled by companies directly and should not be the subject of regulation. ICD head Stan Magidson says many boards are taking it seriously and looking to add a more diverse array of directors. “From our discussions with folks who think about these issues, diversity is top of mind in the boardroom,” Mr. Magidson said. “We think you will see movement in this direction.”
To be sure, there are strong private-sector initiatives. The Canadian Board Diversity Council has prepared a database of 50 top candidates to recommend for boards. And the Women on Board mentoring program is pairing female executives with senior male executives who can help them break into critical personal networks to find board positions.
Inmet Mining chairman David Beatty says the issue of board diversity is still relatively new for many firms – especially those in the resource sector – and they should be given more time to implement solutions before regulation is forced upon them. Canada has a relatively small and collegial business community where moral suasion works well to compel reform, he says. “I’d probably give it another five years to see how we do … I think making awareness the No. 1 job for the next little while is the first logical step.”
Others, however, complain it will take many decades for women to reach parity at the current pace of change. Veteran corporate director Phyllis Yaffe, chair of Cineplex Entertainment, says she’s grown weary of suggestions she often hears that Canada needs to wait another five years to see what happens, saying leaving it to boards’ best intentions has led to minimal change.
“So what’s the answer if it’s not targets or quotas or rules or something that says to people, ‘Take this seriously and work at it,’ ” she asks.
Ms. Yaffe believes the pace of change has been slower on board diversity than any other board governance issue in the past decade because board membership cuts to “the heart of the matter” where it is most difficult for people to change their deeply held attitudes.
“You look around the room and you want to see what you’re comfortable with,” she says of many board chairmen who control appointments. “And what people are comfortable with are the people they know.”
BY THE NUMBERS
Women on boards of companies in the S&P/TSX composite index in 2012:
Companies with no women on the board: 101 companies or 41%
Companies with one woman on the board, but less than 25% women: 115 or 47%
Companies with between 25% and 33% women directors: 21 companies or 9%
Companies with at least 33% women directors: 7 companies or 3%