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Toronto city councillor Michelle Holland wants civic appointments to city-owned corporations and boards, to be filled at least 50 per cent women by 2019, arguing that only a quota system will ensure gender diversity. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

A Toronto city councillor wants all civic appointments to city-owned corporations and boards to be filled by at least 50 per cent women by 2019, arguing that only a quota system will ensure gender diversity.

Michelle Holland, who represents the Scarborough Southwest ward, is presenting the motion calling for the quotas at next months' council meeting. She is going farther than the Ontario government, which recently set gender diversity targets to see women make up at least 40 per cent of all appointments to every provincial board and agency by 2019.

However, her plan was almost derailed behind the scenes at city hall this week. According to sources, some male council members and political staff pushed back on the idea, warning it wouldn't get enough votes at council. They have since backed down and Ms. Holland has partnered with fellow councillor, Toronto Danforth's Mary Fragedakis, who will second her motion at the July 12 meeting.

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Amanda Galbraith, the mayor's spokesperson, wouldn't comment on whether Mr. Tory will support mandating gender diversity, saying he does not typically comment on motions before they are made public. But, she added, he has a long history of promoting diversity through his charitable work and time at CivicAction, which is a group of senior executives and leaders that work together to help the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area.

Earlier this month, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne resisted legislating gender diversity or bringing in regulations when she announced the target – but is keeping that open as an option if progress is not made on achieving the 40 per cent target.

Quotas are controversial as many women believe that imposing them can backfire and look like tokenism.

"When I was younger … I was against quotas," says Ms. Holland, who has worked for provincial and federal politicians, and "thought you can just make it on your own."

But she says barriers still exist for women, "because Joe knows Bob on the golf course."

"Unless you have it in writing, [a policy to promote women to boards], it just won't happen …," she says.

Ms. Holland's motion calls for city-owned corporations and boards to be composed of "at least 50 per cent women by 2019 and … as appointment renewals emerge between [the third quarter of] 2016 and [the first quarter of] 2019 boards managing these appointments shall take all necessary and required steps to ensure compliance with this objective by the stated date."

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Ms. Fragedakis recalled a debate in city council last year over four appointments to the Toronto Transit Commission.

"The first presentation of candidates, all four of them, were middle-aged white men," she said. "A number of us on council pushed back and we ended up taking one man off and putting a woman on. … How many women use the TTC? A lot."

Currently, women represent about 39 per cent of the membership on city boards – but this is just an overall average. For example, of the 14 directors on the Toronto Hydro board, only two are women; five of the 16 directors listed on Invest Toronto's website are women.

Ms. Holland is concerned that a change in council membership could also lead to a decrease in representation. She sees how names get pushed forward, and how effective male networking can be, adding she thinks that women who are just as qualified don't push for appointments.

She does not know how much support she has around the council table – women represent 14 of the 44 wards on council.

Ms. Fragedakis wants to see the motion passed unanimously. She says she is crossing her fingers and hoping for the best. "Some of these guys are married. They should maybe be worried about going home and trying to explain to their wives why they wouldn't vote in favour of gender equality on boards," she says about her male colleagues.

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However, Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong, who has not yet seen her motion, emphasized that appointing directors to boards is not just about gender balance.

He said that finding the right mix and balance between the skills, gender and ethnic diversity can be trying.

"It's a challenging balance … do we need to institutionalize it? … I think you want to have a certain amount of flexibility in the decisions that that you make. I am going to reflect on whether we want to do that. Then the next question you ask [is], are there are other things you want to institutionalize as well?"

He noted that some of the city's organizations are responsible for spending billions of dollars, making "big decisions with substantial consequences and you want to make any decision very carefully."

The paucity of women on boards is a big issue. Catalyst, a global non-profit organization advocating for women in the workplace, was commissioned by the province to look at the representation of women on boards.

Women comprised just 15.9 per cent of those on boards at Canada's largest companies in 2013, according to Catalyst. Public companies had the lowest share of women on boards, at 12.1 per cent in that year – and nearly half of them – or 41.7 per cent – had no female directors.

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