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The number of women occupying seats in the boardrooms of Canada’s large, publicly listed companies is inching higher, but gender diversity is stagnating at the executive level, according to a new report.

Women occupied 16.4 per cent of the board seats at Toronto Stock Exchange-listed companies at the end of July, up about two percentage points from a year ago, according to a report published on Friday by law firm Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP.

But the number of female executive officers remains virtually unchanged since 2015, when Canadian securities regulators introduced a “comply or explain” policy. The rules require companies to disclose each year the number of women in executive positions and on their boards. The Osler report is based on those disclosures.

Women occupied, on average, 15.8 per cent of the executive officer positions at TSX-listed companies, up marginally from 15 per cent, where it has sat for the past three years.

Andrew MacDougall, a partner at Osler who specializes in corporate governance matters, says it is harder to effect change at the executive level than in the boardroom.

“These are people you’re bringing up through your organization, so you need to have a plan that’s going to develop leaders within the organization,” Mr. MacDougall said. “You aren’t going to have the same degree of turnover in your senior executive ranks" as in the board of directors.

But even at the board level, the pace of change has been slow – moving from 11 per cent in the first year to 12 per cent in the second year and 14 per cent in the third. At the current rate, it will take decades before women hold 50 per cent of the board seats at large public companies, Mr. MacDougall said.

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Camilla Sutton, CEO of Women in Capital MarketsFred Lum

Camilla Sutton, president and chief executive of Women in Capital Markets, said she expects the Ontario Securities Commission to introduce further rules to speed up the process.

“As we have seen over the last several years, progress is slow, and the attempts to drive change to date have not yielded the results we would have hoped,” she said.

Currently, companies are not required to set formal targets for board diversity or have a board diversity policy in place – those who do not have them are only asked to explain why.

But the OSC has said it is mulling various options to accelerate change, including forcing public companies to set targets for the number of women in director positions and executive roles or increasing board turnover by setting limits on how long directors can serve.

However, even term limits would not guarantee that available board seats go to women. In the first half of 2018, about 32.3 per cent of the newly created or vacated board seats went to women.

Several women were named directors at Hydro One after the utility’s entire board and CEO resigned under pressure from Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government. Lawyer Cherie Brant, former Weyerhaeuser executive Anne Giardini, interim Canada Post CEO Jessica McDonald, and Melissa Sonberg, executive-in-residence at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management, were appointed to Hydro One’s board this year.

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