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The rules have been changing quickly when it comes to workplace issues such as diversity, equality, gender parity and sexual harassment. Why? Because it’s 2016, Pamela Jeffery says.

Expectations have changed in boardrooms across Canada and beyond in the past year, says Ms. Jeffery, founder of the Pamela Jeffery Group and of the Canadian Board Diversity Council.

Canada’s changing boardrooms and leadership

Corporate Canada is changing, but slowly, according to the Canadian Board Diversity Council (CBDC). Here is a snapshot:

Women

In 2015, the Ontario Securities Commission began requiring companies to disclose information on the gender diversity of their boards. Six out of 10 directors who responded to a CBDC survey (its most recent) said they believe the new OSC requirements will increase diversity. Right now only 19.5 per cent of corporate board members in Canada are women. “Small changes can make a difference,” the CBDC says. If the number of board seats remains unchanged and boards replace current directors as they retire or reach term limits, the percentage could quickly climb to 30 per cent – which would not quite be gender parity but would put Canada among the world’s leaders.

Sexual harassment and gender issues

Ontario’s recent toughening of its laws addressing sexual harassment in the workplace is expected to bring new rigour into the reporting and follow-up in sexual harassment incidents at companies. Recent legislation also passed in British Columbia governing sexual harassment in postsecondary campuses. The new Ontario law should make it easier to seek redress before problems escalate, says Kenda Murphy, a Toronto-based employment lawyer with Rubin Thomlinson LLP, in a recent blog post. It means “there should no longer be any doubt that an employee does not require a formal written complaint before a manager or supervisor will need to follow up on it.”

Ontario has added gender identity and expression to its human rights code, which has implications for companies that operate in Ontario, for example in determining the washrooms and change rooms they provide. Federal and British Columbia human rights tribunals have ruled that discriminating against transgender people is sex discrimination, and Alberta, Saskatchewan, Yukon, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Quebec have all published material on the human rights of transgender people.

Aboriginal issues

In its final report the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission included a call for the corporate sector to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a reconciliation framework and to apply its principles, norms and standards to corporate policy and core operational activities involving indigenous people, and their lands and resources.

(Sharon Dominick/iStockphoto)

The big change came in October, 2015, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau emerged from the swearing in of his new cabinet and responded to reporters asking why it was made up equally of women and men.

“Because it’s 2015,” the Prime Minister said.

“It goes back to that [Prime Minister Trudeau’s gender-equal cabinet],” says corporate adviser Ms. Jeffery, who has served as a director at several organizations and whose company conducts executive searches for mining, health-care, education, entertainment and other companies.

“There’s a fast-changing view that we need a much, much higher percentage of women in executive officer, C-suite and board roles. The women who are now entering boardrooms – in numbers we’ve never seen before in Canada – are changing the conversations in those boardrooms,” she says.

The “conversations” Ms. Jeffery refers to are more focused on how to attract and retain women in leadership roles.

“Five years ago I would not have expected to see a drive for women and men in equal numbers.” In addition to the Prime Minister’s example and comment, “it’s women who are driving this,” she says.

Millennial-age workers also have increased expectations of gender parity, diversity, equal treatment and stronger policies against sexual harassment in the workplace, Ms. Jeffery adds.

“Millennials don’t think of diversity in the same way that we [older-than-millennial workers] thought of it. We thought of it as what a person’s background is, where they’re from. They think of diversity more as diversity of experience and thinking,” she says.

Financial services and retail companies tend to be at the forefront of diversity and related workplace equality issues.

“Our board has objectives around diversity,” says Eric Dillon, chief executive officer of Regina-based Conexus Credit Union, who oversees a staff of about 1,000 and 41 branches in Saskatchewan.

These go beyond gender and also include factors such as the age of board members.

“We have had gaps in terms of the age of our board. We recruited a 20-year-old university student, a young woman going into law school. Having the perspective of a young financial consumer was really important for us,” he says.

Still, according to data from the Canadian Board Diversity Council, last year women held fewer than one in four board seats among companies listed on the FP500 companies in the FP Magazine’s survey of Canadian businesses. A 2014 Catalyst Inc. report found 20.8 per cent of women had board seats at S&P/TSX 60 companies.

While the Council saw a 2.4-per-cent increase in female board members over the previous year, directors reported that they had seen very few changes to the policies and approaches of the board, it said in its 2015 annual report.

And only 21 per cent of directors surveyed “say their board now incorporates discussion on increasing their board’s diversity into their meeting agendas. Only 15 per cent of directors said their boards have introduced a written board diversity policy.”

Events and new rules are changing the way the corporate world approaches diversity and issues such as sexual harassment and transgender rights.

The changes are partly fuelled by high-profile workplace-related news stories, such as the issues surrounding former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi and the more recent sudden departure of former Fox News head Roger Ailes, followed by a network apology and a $20-million (U.S.) settlement awarded to former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson.

On Sept. 8, Ontario brought in a new law requiring every employer – no matter how small – to have a policy against sexual harassment and violence in the workplace and to investigate complaints.

The new Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act defines it as including “vexatious comment or conduct against a worker because of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression” as well as making unwelcome sexual propositions or advances by bosses who have power over their workers’ careers.

A 2014 survey by Angus Reid found that 43 per cent of women and 12 per cent of men said they had been sexually harassed at work, and in most cases the victims did not report this to their employers.

Gender identity and transgender rights are also issues that companies are learning to focus on, Ms. Jeffery says. “They’re learning to support people in the choices they make,” she says.

This issue is creating a backlash in some quarters. But anti-transgender laws passed in U.S. states such as North Carolina have triggered strong criticism and led to boycotts by celebrities such as Bruce Springsteen and organizations such as the National Basketball Association, which is moving its scheduled All-Star Game from Charlotte.

Bringing more representation from among indigenous communities into leadership is also now a key objective among many big firms in Canada, Ms. Jeffery says.

“Companies are now paying a lot more attention,” she explains. “The challenge that companies and [indigenous] peoples both have is integration. [Indigenous] communities want their people to be educated and they want opportunities, and Canada’s biggest companies tell me that they want to have more [indigenous] representation.”

Changing the makeup of C-suite Canada and its boardrooms is not necessarily a forced march toward progress, says Mr. Dillon.

“Companies today are well served when the teams they put together are designed to collide their points of view, histories, backgrounds. They generate the best ideas and the best plans. Organizations that don’t do this won’t have the best level of performance,” he says.

“Groups that are able to consider multiple points of view from multiple perspectives make better decisions. The academic science around this is clear.”

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