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Sandra Stuart, seen at the HSBC Bank Canada offices in Vancouver last month, says uniformity in a corporate boardroom is not healthy.

Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

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Diversity in the boardroom, to hear some Canadian corporate executives tell it, is difficult to achieve. It is hard to find women with CEO experience, for example, so the same bunch of boys remains in charge of the club.

The HSBC Bank Canada tossed out that rulebook years ago.

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When the Ontario Securities Commission imposed a new requirement earlier this year, asking all companies on the Toronto Stock Exchange to file a report on their plans to improve the proportion of women on their boards of directors and in senior management, the bank's Canadian operation had nothing to fear.

Women made up less than 15 per cent of directors in the S&P/TSX composite index last year. The British-based bank, with 6,000 Canadian employees, recently achieved gender parity in its Canadian boardroom. (Thirty-five per cent of HSBC's global board members are women.)

Sandra Stuart, national chair of HSBC's Diversity and Inclusion Council, says uniformity in a corporate boardroom is not healthy – she is looking for a range of backgrounds, not just in gender but in age, ethnicity and experience. It's about chemistry, and the ability to debate questions openly.

"When we do our board searches, you have to be inclusive. CEOs don't always have the profile you are looking for," she said in an interview. "Maybe you need a lawyer or an entrepreneur, someone who understands customer service."

Worldwide, HSBC has set a goal to promote inclusion, seeking to attract and retain employees from under-represented groups. It has trained more than 8,000 managers and tens of thousands of employees to tackle "unconscious bias."

Those kinds of programs do not gain traction unless the tone is set at the top. Ms. Stuart says diversity in the boardroom allows for better analysis. That was crucial when the bank launched a suite of products to capitalize on growth in dim sum bonds using China's currency, the renminbi. She said it has also been a factor in how the bank handles issues related to risk management and talent recruitment. "The discussion is richer and deeper than it has ever been."

In the past four years, she has seen rapid change at HSBC Canada. One-fifth of the directors in Canada were female in 2010, when she was appointed to the board and named Canadian chief operating officer.

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She cannot say the changes have influenced the company's bottom line – but she believes they have helped the bank adapt in turbulent times.

In 2013, HSBC Canada posted a $1-billion year of operating profit, a first for the bank, and the first time a foreign bank's subsidiary has reached that level in Canada.

"I don't know that we can make the relationship between [diversity and] a more profitable organization, but we can make the relationship that we continue to maintain a strong, profitable organization," she said. "It has made us more confident in our direction."

Ms. Stuart started in the company as a teller 34 years ago. The culture at the bank was different then – but she missed the memo. "We weren't necessarily as accepting of women into the commercial and global banking sections, and in the technology space. Naive as I was at the time, I was blind to that," she said.

This year, Ms. Stuart was listed as one of Canada's most powerful women by the Women's Executive Network. She is grateful that, when she started out, she missed the cues about the typical roles for women in banking. "Upon reflection, I'm glad I didn't see that, because it could have been a bit daunting at the time."

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