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Michele Cadario and Jenni Byrne have run national political campaigns and prime ministers’ offices. They now run J&M Leadership Network.

Goldman Sachs recently announced that they will no longer do initial public offerings for companies without one “diverse” board member – with the focus on women. They did not do it for good public relations. They say that IPOs for companies going public with women on their boards performed significantly better than those that did not.

Are investment bankers in corporate Canada willing to consider something similar?

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As former deputy chiefs of staff to different prime ministers, we were the first women to be national campaign directors for our respective parties. We know firsthand the difference that women make at senior levels of organizations, and we know how hard it can be for them to get there.

While there is a long way to go, there is evidence of progress in the Canadian public sector.

Mainstream political parties acknowledge, and work to varying degrees, to improve upon the gender imbalance among candidates and those named to positions of leadership. And across the country, we see intelligent, well-qualified women from the private sector being appointed to government agencies and Crown corporations, and more women being named to senior levels of the public service.

Yet the private sector drags behind. In an annual report by Osler Hoskin and Harcourt LLP, the 2019 Diversity Disclosure Practices study found “ … a gradual decline in the year-over-year rate at which women are being added to company boards.” The study looked at the mid-year results for 2019 from the disclosure reports filed by 657 companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange. According to the filings, women held just 18 per cent of the board seats, up less than 2 per cent over mid-year 2018.

Only five companies reported that 50 per cent or more of their board members are women: Dream Unlimited Corp., Diversified Royalty Corp., MCAN Mortgage Corp., New Gold Inc., and Saputo Inc. A staggering 158 of the 657 companies (24 per cent) listed on the TSX still have all-male boards.

Contrast that with the United States, where not one of the S&P 500 companies has an all-male board.

Australia and Britain are nearing the 30 per cent mark for women on the boards of publicly traded companies. In September of 2018, California became the first U.S. state to require publicly traded companies based there to have female board members. New Jersey and Michigan put forward similar legislation a year later, and New York is also considering it.

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Is legislation required in Canada to see substantial improvement? Is that the only way to banish all-male boards? Could access to capital be a better driver of change instead?

There is evidence that institutional investors are increasingly looking to see gender diversity. New diversity disclosure policies for publicly traded companies have illuminated the issue and made it easier for investors to see where diversity gaps exist. But will disclosure alone be enough to change decades of corporate behaviour?

From our experience in politics, we know that when women are asked to run for election, they are much more likely than men to say they don’t think they are qualified. And they are less likely to champion themselves for promotions or higher profile positions.

For many of those 158 companies with all-male boards, is the barrier that they simply do not know any smart, professional, experienced women? Are they relying on head-hunting firms to find qualified candidates, and when those firms come back with a list of men, not challenging them? Are search firms struggling with much the same obstacles Canada’s political parties have been working to overcome: getting more women to recognize their own merit and champion themselves for these positions?

There is an impressive, untapped network of women across this country. Women with expertise in every industry, all with proven leadership skills. But it takes more than a head-hunter reading a LinkedIn page to find them.

To the 158 TSX companies with all-male boards: Putting women on your board of directors is good for business. But like all things in business, it takes innovative thinking and a real network to get it done.

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