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Women held fewer than one-fifth of director seats at corporate boards in 2017, while more than 60 per cent of boards were composed entirely of men, a new Statistics Canada study shows.

The report covered about 10,100 companies conducting business in Canada – including publicly traded and private corporations, along with government business enterprises such as Canada Post – and found that 18.1 per cent of director seats were held by women in 2017, a “slight increase” from 17.8 per cent in 2016. The majority of boards (61.2 per cent) had zero women, while 27.7 per cent had one female director and the remaining 11.1 per cent of boards had more than one.

The study revealed a slow pace of change on corporate boards, with women occupying 19.2 per cent of new director positions in 2017.

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“If only 20 per cent of newly available positions are filled by women, it simply doesn’t move the needle very much in any significant direction,” said Beatrix Dart, a professor of strategic management and the executive director of the Initiative for Women in Business at the Rotman School of Management.

This was the second time that Statscan has published a comprehensive look at gender representation on boards, noting last year this "fills an important data gap” by providing estimates for a range of business types, unlike many reports that solely focus on publicly traded companies. Statscan’s report also includes foreign-controlled entities with Canadian operations.

Figures varied by industry. The utilities industry had the highest proportion of women in director seats, at 24.6 per cent, while the finance industry was next at 23.3 per cent. The manufacturing and construction industries had the lowest levels of female representation, with both under 14 per cent.

The study also found that representation was higher at Canada’s largest corporations. Among companies in the highest quartile by asset value, close to 21 per cent of director seats were filled by women.

Government business enterprises continue to have the highest levels of female representation, with women occupying 35.2 per cent of director positions in 2017, up from 27.7 per cent in 2016.

Women held 21.3 per cent of director seats at publicly traded corporations, while private companies lagged at 17.7 per cent.

More timely data suggest recent regulatory changes have made an appreciable impact on gender representation at publicly traded companies.

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Starting in 2015, the Ontario Securities Commission required companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange to disclose the number and proportion of women on their boards, among other requirements.

Since then, there has been a “notable increase” in the proportion of women on boards, according to an analysis from Toronto-Dominion Bank economists Beata Caranci and Leslie Preston published last March.

More recently, the Canadian Securities Administrators noted the share of board seats held by women in a sample of more than 600 companies increased to 17 per cent in 2019, from 11 per cent in 2015.

But the proportion of female appointments to Canada’s largest companies has ebbed, according to an analysis by executive-search and advisory firm Spencer Stuart from last year. Thirty per cent of appointments of new directors at Canada’s 100 largest companies by revenue were women in 2018, down from greater than 40 per cent every year from 2014 to 2017.

“There’s an issue with companies trying to dodge the bullet and saying, ‘Oh, we can’t find anybody suitable for our boards,’ " said Ms. Dart, noting there are thousands of women certified by the Institute for Corporate Directors, along with others capable for the roles.

“A lot of women are ready to serve as directors ... and are desperately looking to be on a board.”

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