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Women are still underrepresented in corporate boardrooms across Canada, but organizations could be doing more to close the gap.Noel Hendrickson

Gender equity in corporate boardrooms in Canada is still far from equitable, despite diversity disclosure rules.

A review from February 2022 by Women Get On Board found that among the 237 new listings on the TSX and TSX Venture exchange last year, less than 16 per cent of board seats were filled by women.

Only 3.4 per cent of those companies had achieved gender parity in their boardrooms (50 per cent or more), while 38 per cent had no female representation at all on boards.

Meanwhile, a 2021 report by business law firm Osler found that among the S&P/TSX 60 companies, almost one-third (33.2 per cent) of board seats are held by women.

“Big companies, that’s where we’ve seen the most progress,” says Jennifer Reynolds, Toronto-based CEO of Women Corporate Directors Foundation, a global not-for-profit organization of female corporate directors.

Even 30 per cent representation is not enough, she says.

“Women are 50 per cent of the population, we are 50 per cent of university graduates – we have been for decades – and we’re almost 50 per cent of the workforce. We should be 50 per cent of the economic leadership of this country,” says Ms. Reynolds.

Since 2020, the federal government has required corporations governed by the Canada Business Corporations Act with publicly traded securities disclose to shareholders the number of women and other diverse groups on boards and in senior management positions. In Ontario, the Ontario Securities Commission has required since 2014 that most TSX-listed companies set targets for women on boards and executive committees.

Yet progress toward gender equity has stalled at the highest levels, where women make up a measly five per cent of chair and CEO roles, Ms. Reynolds says.

“Those roles have considerable influence on the board and on decisions that are made within the company,” she says. “They’re important roles and the numbers are not moving.”

Ms. Reynolds says there are several key measures company leadership can take to improve gender balance on boards:

Give women leadership roles on board committees

“I worry with some boards it’s a bit of a check-the-box initiative. ‘Okay, we’ve got three women, we’ve got one diverse candidate, but we don’t really change much about the way the board functions,’” Ms. Reynolds says. “Are you actually seeking different opinions and a variety of views?”

Boards need to be cognizant of not just the presence of women and diverse members, but whether they’re being welcomed and heard, she adds. Women should be given leadership roles on board committees where they can have greater influence.

Repair the pipeline

There are plenty of women out there who are qualified for board roles, Ms. Reynolds says, but improving gender diversity in the boardroom means improving gender diversity throughout the organization. A lack of representation in the junior level will continue through mid-level positions and into senior roles.

“You have to understand what’s wrong with your pipeline,” she says. “Why do you only have two women in your executive suite?”

Set targets

Ms. Reynolds says it’s important for organizations to have targets – not quotas – at every level.

As well, companies need to hold themselves accountable for meeting those targets, she says. The companies that are successfully closing the gender gap have targets, they’ve made them known publicly, and they hold executives accountable for failing to meet them.

“People have to believe that it really is an important part of their job for it to be effective,” she says.

Want a board role? Increase your visibility

Women who are interested in board appointments can be proactive as well, says Ms. Reynolds.

Tell people you’re interested and then get out and network, meeting people in the sectors and on the boards you’re interested in, Ms. Reynolds suggests. Let them know what skills you can bring to the board.

Ask for introductions and attend events where you’re likely to meet senior executives and board members in sectors of interest, she says. And don’t be afraid to ask people to meet for a coffee and talk about potential board roles.

“Thinking about how you break into those networks is really important,” Ms. Reynolds says.

“Don’t hesitate to reach out… You’ve got to get out there and start talking to more people if you’re going to get on the right boards.”

Ask Women and Work

Have a question about your work life? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.

Question: I’m coming back from a year-long maternity leave and I’m feeling apprehensive. I’m excited to get back to my job, but I know it’s a very fast-paced environment. Before my leave, I used to regularly work late and on weekends, as did my colleagues. My child will be in daycare, but I am feeling overwhelmed about the idea of balancing my work duties with all my responsibilities at home. My partner is extremely supportive, but their work is very intense and time-consuming too, so I’ve been doing the lion’s share of childcare during my leave. How should I approach my employer for extra supports/understanding as I make this transition?

We asked Alicia DeFreitas, chief human resources officer at BDO Canada, to field this one:

Congratulations on the arrival of your little one. When it comes to navigating your return to the workplace, this transition can feel daunting.

It is important to first evaluate your situation with your partner and understand what you both need to thrive when you return to work.

Next, have an open and transparent conversation with your employer about your needs, and work together to ensure you can meet the requirements of your role as well as finding work-life balance. By incorporating flexibility in your day-to-day work arrangement, you and your employer can ensure that you can excel at work and at home. For example, you may want to take some time off during the day to drop off and pick up a child from daycare, while working earlier in the morning or later in the evening to complete your daily tasks.

Once you have created that open dialogue with your employer, you may realize small tweaks to what used to be the traditional workday will support your back to work transition. When balancing competing demands, having the option to explore flex hours, reduced work arrangements and/or working remotely on occasion can help.

Creating success both professionally and personally will look different for each individual and family. It’s very important that employers create an environment where employees feel comfortable discussing their unique needs, so that together they can come up with specific solutions to help team members transition from maternity/parental leave back into the workplace.