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More women in senior internal legal roles are landing appointments to the boards of Canada’s biggest public companies, and now outnumber their male counterparts in board representation.

Law firm Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP tracks the number of in-house lawyers in general counsel (GC) or chief legal officer roles who are on the boards of the approximately 240 companies in the S&P/TSX Composite Index.

The firm’s latest analysis found that the number of female GCs on boards increased to 49 in 2019, up from 26 in 2016. And in a report published last week, Blakes said that female GCs also surpass their male counterparts in board membership by a ratio of about three to two. It is a rare bright spot for women in Canadian boardrooms that, over all, are still dominated in numbers by men.

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"A lot more women are putting themselves forward for these positions than ever have in the past,” said Stacy McLean, a Blakes partner with experience advising public company boards on governance issues. Increasing attention to the need for greater diversity on boards has also helped, she added.

“Female GCs often have a wide skill set and a great perspective to bring to the boardroom. The governance experience that they have is something that lots of other executives don’t have,” Ms. McLean said. To win board seats, she noted, in-house counsel also have to prove they can bring a business mindset to the board role, not just apply their skills for risk management and legal compliance.

Blakes launched a workshop series in 2017 to help women in senior in-house legal roles win appointments to the boards of public and private companies, not-for-profits and government organizations. It has since worked with about 350 women, many of whom are in-house counsel at clients of the firm, and are seeking board roles now or would like to at some point in the future.

“We found that there was a lack of recognition of the skill sets that these female GCs can bring to table,” Ms. McLean said. “The key thing that research has shown is that really developing your network is important and for a lot of women especially, spending the time on networking skills hasn’t been top of mind."

“The importance of networking cannot be overstated,” said Maryse Bertrand, former general counsel at CBC/Radio-Canada, who is now a director on the boards of National Bank of Canada, Gildan Activewear Inc., grocery chain Metro Inc. and PSP Investments, the large investment manager that handles the pension money of federal civil servants.

“Women think of networking as something vaguely artificial and distasteful. I was always terrible at cold calling. It felt forced and unnatural. I just wasn’t very good at that, but enjoyed reaching out to people for coffees and meals,” Ms. Bertrand said in an interview published in the Blakes report.

“Then, you have to stay in touch. Networking is a long-term project and you may not see dividends for years. You just have to keep at it."

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Two other women involved with the Blakes program are Gail Harding, former chief legal officer with Canada Western Bank, who was named to the board of Meridian Credit Union earlier this year, and Cecile Chung, general counsel at metals distributor and manufacturer Samuel, Son & Co., who was appointed to the board of investment attraction agency Toronto Global in January. ​

Other recent examples of women GCs landing board appointments include Paulina Hiebert, who held senior in-house legal roles with The North West Company Inc. and The Brick Group Income Fund, and was named to the board of trustees of Boston Pizza Royalties Income Fund in June, and Christa Wessel, chief operating officer and general counsel with ClearView Strategic Partners Inc., who was appointed in July to the board of the Canadian Commercial Corporation, a federal Crown corporation focused on exports. ​

Despite the progress among female GCs, as well as heightened media scrutiny of board diversity and new regulatory disclosure requirements, women remain underrepresented on Canadian boards.

In a report published in September, Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP found that as of July 31, women held just 18 per cent of board seats among 726 companies that disclosed the number of female board members (up from about 12 per cent in 2015).

Canadian boards fare even worse on representation of visible minorities and Indigenous people. In its 2018 report, the Canadian Board Diversity Council found self-reported visible minorities accounted for just 6 per cent of board members among TSX 60 companies, an index of 60 of the largest companies on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

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