Pamela Jeffery thought it was hard when she started lobbying to get more women appointed to corporate boardrooms, but that's nothing compared to what she's facing now pushing another unrepresented demographic: aboriginals.
"It's tougher," said Ms. Jeffery of the challenge that was the focus of a summit Wednesday in Vancouver which discussed "the gulf that seems to exist between corporate Canada and aboriginal people."
Ms. Jeffery, founder of the Canadian Board Diversity Council and the Women's Executive Network, said since 2010 the CBDC has been closely watching the makeup of the top 500 boards in Canada, and it's shocking how few aboriginals have a seat at the table.
"The representation is woefully inadequate – at 0.8 per cent – for aboriginal people," she said, noting native people make up about 4.3 per cent of the national population.
Ms. Jeffery said by comparison about 16 per cent of the board seats on the top 500 companies are held by women, with females making up about 50 per cent of the Canadian population.
She said it's tougher to get aboriginals appointed to boards than women, not only because of the smaller numbers available to choose from, but also because so few corporate directors have native people in their social or corporate circles.
"Because they tend to reach into their networks to appoint new board members it perpetuates the lack of diversity on boards," she said.
"Each year we ask corporate directors how they identify potential new directors to bring forward on slates to their shareholders. And each year our research shows that four of five directors brought on to boards are brought on by the existing directors. And so typically those existing directors don't have [aboriginal people] within their own networks."
For the past several years, the CBDC has been annually identifying 50 of "Canada's most diverse and eligible board candidates," publishing a list in the hope that boards will step outside their usual zone of familiarity to make appointments from unrepresented groups, such as women and visible minorities.
Ms. Jeffery said she'd like to see more aboriginal candidates being selected by boards, but it is difficult getting momentum for change.
Asked what level of enthusiasm she's seeing from corporate directors, she replied: "Well, we've started the conversation. And you know it's similar to the conversation that I was having with boards 17 years ago with respect to women on boards."
In hopes of making a breakthrough, Ms. Jeffery has teamed up with J.P. Gladu, president and CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, for a series of summits involving aboriginal and business leaders. The next event is in Calgary on May 14.
Mr. Gladu, a member of the Sand Point First Nation on Lake Nipigon in Ontario, said the effort is long overdue.
"Pamela's organization does all this great work. They've got the Diversity 50 [candidates identified for boards]. They put everything out on a silver platter for these corporations and her organization is definitely seeing some success [with women and minorities]," he said. "But with that 0.8 per cent … it's dismal and speaks volumes that we really have a way to go."
Mr. Gladu said he felt "a sense of sadness" about the low number of aboriginals on boards, but senses there is a growing awareness in Canada that it's a problem. "I believe corporate Canada understands if they don't build relationships with our people and go back to the fundamentals of what it means to do business together, they are recognizing that projects will become more risky and potentially jeopardized," he said.
Mr. Gladu attributed the lack of native people on boards to "fear of the unknown" rather than racism, saying most board directors simply don't know any aboriginals.He's hoping that through the summits, he and Ms. Jeffery can make a lot more introductions and achieve a 5-per-cent representation of aboriginals on boards.