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Webnames.ca co-founder and CEO Cybele Negris, photographed here in Vancouver, holds board positions with a diverse portfolio of organizations.Jackie Dives

When Cybele Negris, co-founder & CEO of Webnames.ca, launched her domain registrar company in 2000, the culture in her industry was overwhelmingly male.

Whenever Ms. Negris and her male business partners attended a technology event, for example, people assumed she was either someone’s spouse or an executive assistant.

“Did it bother me? Sure, it did, but did I let it deter me from the industry? No. It made me a little bit more determined and ambitious,” Ms. Negris says. “Instead of letting it get to me, I decided to make some changes to the environment in general.”

Now, Ms. Negris’s influence in the business community reaches well beyond her own multi-million-dollar company. The Vancouver-based CEO is also a board member for a diverse portfolio of organizations including the Royal Canadian Mint, the British Columbia Automobile Association (BCAA) and Blue Shore Financial. She’s also vice-chair of Vancouver’s non-profit science museum Science World and the B.C. Small Business Roundtable.

In the early years of her career as a CEO, Ms. Negris says she was invited to sit on some not-for-profit boards, but she also wanted to effect change in public companies. So, she identified the companies she liked, then reached out to the people on nomination or governance committees and told them she was interested.

“When I think back, I was probably the only female [on those boards],” Ms. Negris says. “Once I was on a board, I used my network to bring other women I knew were qualified into the fold.”

Signs of progress

A recent diversity report by law firm Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP found that women hold approximately 23.4 per cent of board seats among Toronto Stock Exchange-listed companies that disclose the number of women on their boards, an increase from 21.5 per cent last year. Only 15.7 per cent of TSX-listed companies reported having no women on their board.

The report also found that women filled 39.1 per cent of newly-created or vacated board seats for the year ending July 2021, compared with 35 per cent for the same period in 2020.

While this does show progress for women on boards, it is slow, says Vandana Juneja, the executive director of Catalyst Canada, a research and advisory non-profit championing opportunities for women in business.

“[And] if progress for women on boards can be called slow, progress for other underrepresented groups in Canada – Indigenous Peoples, persons with disabilities and visible minorities – is positively glacial,” Ms. Juneja adds. For example, the Osler report found that only 6.8 per cent of board positions in corporations providing disclosure are held by visible minorities.

One reason for this imbalance is that public company boards in Canada are largely occupied by older white men, Ms. Juneja says. “Typically, whenever a spot opens up, those at the table are more likely to pick someone that’s part of their network.”

She notes, however, that there is evidence of change. With environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues at the forefront of international conversations surrounding social equity, investors are demanding transparency from companies on the diversity of their workforces and treating a lack of disclosure on gender and ethnic diversity as a business risk.

In Dec. 2014, the Canadian Securities Administrators (CSA) introduced a “comply or explain” disclosure requirement for women’s representation on corporate boards and leadership positions. While TSX-listed companies are under no obligation to increase the diversity of their board or C-suite or adopt any specific policies related to diversity, they must disclose whether or not they have done so and why.

Raman Grewal, a partner at Toronto’s Stikeman Elliott LLP, was among a handful of people that witnessed the birth of the regulation, and she says that while some people may argue there’s “not enough teeth” in a requirement that only requires disclosure, it has had impact.

“The benefit of these rules is that they require you to have a conversation,” she says. “When we started having these conversations, we started to have real meaningful change around people’s attitudes on why it was important to have broader diversity at the leadership level.”

Getting on board

When Ms. Negris began pursuing board seats, she says she realized companies usually pick candidates from their own network. So, she got to work.

“Part of my board journey was to learn and build my experience on key matters beyond governance, such as risk [and] audit committees,” she says. “I also supplemented with education.”

Ms. Negris enrolled at the Institute of Corporate Directors (ICD), a national not-for-profit association, to earn the ICD.D designation, granted by the ICD-Rotman Directors Education Program. This accreditation program on corporate governance helps directors pursue excellence in the boardroom and involves a rigorous program and examination process.

Susan Black, President & CEO at The Conference Board of Canada, says that women seeking a board seat should look for a sponsor on the board they aspire to join, someone who will nominate them and advocate for them behind closed doors.

“I think [organizations] tend to take a chance or risk on men more than [they] do women,” Dr. Black says. “Which means, implicitly, the bar is higher for women. You need a sponsor that can scan the horizon on where the opportunities are coming and put your name forward.”

Looking for your own seat at the table? Here are seven tips on how to become a board member:

  • Be clear about articulating your goals
  • Develop your network and support system around those goals
  • Identify the types of boards you may want to join
  • Look for sponsors on those boards to assist you
  • Build experience on key matters of governance, such as risk, audit and beyond
  • Supplement your experience with education
  • Network. Reach out to chairs and let them know you are interested

Interested in more perspectives about women in the workplace? Find all stories on the hub here, and subscribe to the new Women and Work newsletter here. Have feedback on the series? Email us at GWC@globeandmail.com.

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