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Bay Street’s boys’ club has a long history of making nonsensical excuses to exclude women from positions of power.

One infamous incident occurred in 1976, when W. Earle McLaughlin, then chairman and president of Royal Bank of Canada, caused an uproar when he claimed the country’s largest bank couldn’t find a qualified woman to serve on its 48-member board of directors. Never mind that smaller rivals had already pulled off this seemingly impossible feat, including Bank of Montreal, Toronto-Dominion Bank and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. Mr. McLaughlin insisted his bank came up empty after scouring the entire country for credentialled women.

“We have looked for such a woman, but we have not been able to find one with the qualifications in the areas we need,” Mr. McLaughlin told a bankers’ meeting in Winnipeg. “For example, a simple housewife may represent women, but she could make no contribution to the running of a bank.”

His absurd comments prompted a dust-up with a female shareholder at the bank’s annual meeting. So when the Bank of Nova Scotia also failed to identify a suitable female director, the federal advisory council on the status of women called on female consumers to boycott banks with all-male boards.

Forty-five years later, systemic discrimination remains a persistent problem in Corporate Canada, creating a power gap for women, Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour (BIPOC) and other minorities.

And yet there was still pushback against initial proposals from Ontario’s Capital Markets Modernization Taskforce to level the playing field for women and diverse candidates. Bay Street’s boys’ club, it seems, supports the notion of diversity as a fuzzy, feel-good concept, but remains reluctant to share power with others. It’s rank hypocrisy.

Sure, financial institutions have made strides: Monique Leroux served as president and CEO of Desjardins Group from 2008 to 2016; Kathleen Taylor is the current chair of RBC; and Rania Llewellyn, became president and CEO of Laurentian Bank of Canada last year. But glass ceilings and sticky floors persist in the financial sector and beyond.

Women occupied just 17 per cent of the board seats at companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange in 2019, according to the Ontario Securities Commission. A 2020 report by law firm Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, meanwhile, found there are “few visible minorities” and that Indigenous peoples and persons with disabilities are “largely absent” from public company boards.

Trouble is, systemic discrimination is proving to be a business risk. The police killing of George Floyd last May prompted the reconsideration of systemic discrimination in many areas, including the corporate world. Now that the global business community is finally onside, Canadian businesses can’t risk looking like relics when competing for capital and investments.

That’s why it’s illogical that many companies opposed the Capital Markets Modernization Taskforce’s original recommendations.

The body, which issued a consultation document last summer, initially recommended that Ontario require TSX-listed companies to set diversity targets for their boards – even floating the suggestion that the floor should be 40 per cent women and 20 per cent BIPOC. It also recommended a 10-year term limit for directors to ensure fresh blood in those pivotal roles.

In its final report released on Friday, the task force instead called for a maximum 12-year term limit with some exceptions, while broadening its definition of diversity to include people with disabilities and individuals who self-identify as LGBTQ+.

The group is now urging the government to require publicly listed companies to set their own diversity targets for directors and executives. It is also suggesting companies should aim for an aggregated target of 50 per cent for women and 30 per cent for BIPOC, persons with disabilities and LGBTQ+. In addition, it argues those businesses should be required to provide annual data on the representation of all diverse candidates.

The task force noted investors need details about diversity to make informed investment and voting decisions. Yet some companies pushed back during the recent consultation.

“While some of us have adopted targets in respect of certain aspects of diversity, others have not, determining that such targets are not in their company’s best interests or, in any event, are not in their best interests at this time,” read a letter from a group of 12 publicly listed companies ranging from Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. to Onex Corp.

The Canadian Bankers Association, meanwhile, cautioned that “choosing too high a target for the representation of women” could impede a bank’s flexibility to improve the representation of individuals from other diverse groups. This represents a perverse, and unnecessary, pitting of underrepresented individuals against one another.

And the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board opposed the initially proposed 10-year maximum term limit. “We believe the nominating process should primarily focus on the experience, qualifications and character of a director, and their contribution to the board, rather than imposing set limits on tenure,” CPPIB told the task force.

If only business leaders actually focused on credentials rather than their own cozy cliques.

Enbridge Inc. exemplifies why the task force’s proposals are perfectly reasonable. The company, which announced new diversity goals this past November, is targeting 40 per cent women and 20 per cent BIPOC on its board by 2025. It’s also aiming to increase BIPOC representation in its overall workforce to 28 per cent. “As part of that commitment, we’ve tied compensation for all employees to our performance against these goals,” said spokesperson Jesse Semko.

So why are other companies still conjuring up excuses?

Perhaps business leaders would have an easier time finding qualified candidates if they learned to look past their own coterie. In fact, The Globe and Mail offered Mr. McLaughlin that same advice in a 1976 op-ed when he complained about his long, futile search for the elusive qualified woman.

“The search would be easier, though, if the bank didn’t confine itself to its ideal – a grandmother in a pin-striped suit, with her hair demurely trimmed above the ears, clenching her unlit pipe between her teeth, and perusing a sheaf of annual reports in the smoking room of the Toronto Club.”

Credentials, indeed.


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