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Canada's largest companies are leaping ahead of their peers in the United States and Britain in adding more women to their boards of directors.

Women now account for 20 per cent of directors on the boards of 100 of Canada's largest companies, while comparable-sized U.S. companies have 17 per cent women and British boards have reached 18 per cent after starting from a lower base five years ago.

A study by executive search firm Spencer Stuart shows the top tier of Canadian companies are starting to overtake U.S. companies after historically ranking lower for women on their boards. The findings demonstrate that many companies have responded voluntarily to boost diversity without the impetus of new disclosure standards that are still under deliberation by the Ontario Securities Commission.

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"We are encouraged by the numbers because there was so little movement for so long," said Tanya van Biesen, the co-head of Spencer Stuart's diversity practice in Canada. "This was done pre-'comply or explain' [regulation] by the OSC, so It's encouraging that it happened effectively on its own and without legislation."

The study examined 100 of Canada's largest companies that are publicly traded and widely held, and compared them with U.S. and British companies of a similar size.

The U.S. and British companies used in the comparison have revenues between $1-billion and $39-billion annually.

In 2008, large-tier Canadian boards were tied with U.S. boards with 15 per cent female directors. But since then, U.S. and Canadian boards have climbed. Large companies in Britain had just 11 per cent female directors in 2008, but saw the proportion climb sharply in 2011 when new disclosure rules were introduced requiring companies to report annually on their diversity practices.

One reason for the stronger Canadian numbers may be that the sample used in the study includes Canada's largest companies, which have a high visibility and play a leadership role in governance, while the British and U.S. firms used in the study exclude some of both countries' largest-capitalization companies to try to ensure size comparability.

Spencer Stuart said an analysis of the 67 U.S. companies – many of them multinationals – that were excluded because they had revenues above the cut-off level shows they had 21 per cent female directors, which is almost identical to Canada's 20-per-cent level.

About 36 per cent of sample companies in all three countries still have either no women or one woman on their boards, Spencer Stuart said. But 31 per cent of Canadian boards have three or more, compared with 22 per cent in Britain and 21 per cent in the U.S., suggesting the most committed Canadian boards are moving further to add larger numbers of women.

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Canada's largest boards far outstrip the national average for women in leadership roles. Data from the Clarkson Centre for Board Effectiveness at the University of Toronto showed women accounted for 12 per cent of directors on boards of all companies in Canada's benchmark S&P/TSX composite index. But those numbers may be poised to rise in coming years.

Andrew MacDougall, who leads the board services practice at Spencer Stuart, said there is evidence the example of large companies is spreading to the next tier of larger and mid-sized companies.

"Most of our board assignments have a woman director specification attached to them – whether for the 100 larger companies or for companies that are smaller," he said.

Mr. MacDougall said there are also signs that the growth in women on top boards may be slowing down for those companies that now have multiple women, especially given that many senior female executives having been snapped up in recent years. However, he said those boards with no women or just one woman are showing strong interest in doing searches for female directors, so they may fuel new growth going forward.

"The reality is that about 36 of the 100 largest widely held companies have only one or no [female] directors, so there's still a lot of room for improvement."

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