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Over the past 18 months, Gerri Sinclair's phone has been ringing off the hook with callers seeking to tap her personal Rolodex of contacts for their boards of directors.

"I've been approached by more and more search firms to give recommendations of women," says Ms. Sinclair, a Vancouver businesswoman and former Microsoft Corp. manager who sits on the boards of Ballard Power Systems Inc. and TMX Group Inc.

Ms. Sinclair is not the only one who has noticed a growing interest in an old subject. Recruiter Kirsten Tisdale says she sees the evidence of change when she talks to companies about their criteria for new directors. Now, she says, clients almost always mention it would be "fantastic" to find a woman.

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"It's like the tide has changed," Ms. Tisdale reports.

Everyone, it seems, has a story to tell about how the glacial pace of advancement for women on boards in Canada seems to be accelerating. And while much of the evidence is anecdotal, a growing number of experts believe the country is at last reaching a tipping point - one at which women are taking bigger role in shaping Canadian business from the boardroom.

The early statistics appear to support the theory. The annual Report on Business Board Games survey of corporate governance practices in Canada shows 59 per cent of companies in the benchmark stock index now have at least one woman on their boards, up from 53 per cent last year and 50 per cent in 2006.

A report last year by search firm Spencer Stuart found women accounted for 21 per cent of new directors added to boards of Canada's 100 largest companies between 2006 and 2008.

That was up from 14 per cent between 2002 and 2005.

Fewer companies than ever are going without a woman's voice at the table. The percentage of 100 top companies without any women directors dropped to 17 per cent last year from 29 per cent in 2000.

Still, many governance experts note it is all modest progress from a low base.

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For many women in their fifties and sixties, the shift has been depressingly slow, given the high hopes of the generation that joined the work force in the 1960s and 1970s.

"I'm disappointed at how long this is taking," adds Beverley Briscoe, who joined the boards of Goldcorp Inc. and Ritchie Bros. Auctioneers Inc. after a career in the heavy equipment industry in British Columbia.

"It is a slower process than many of us thought it would be, back in the days where we thought, 'Wow, the world is going to change really quickly.'"

But Toronto businessman and corporate director James Fleck says it is still undeniable that the influence of women on boards is far greater than it was in past decades.

"What you don't want - and what you did get in the early days - was the so-called token woman director who was supposed to keep quiet and in the corner," he says. "That has changed."

Experts say that obstacles to women have proven stubbornly hard to eliminate because they are rooted in human nature.

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Stella Thompson, a Calgary-based director on the board of Talisman Energy Inc., argues that most men in senior board roles are instinctively more comfortable with people most like themselves. "So right away, a woman is going to take more work, more adaptation."

New directors are seen as a risk for any board, says Vancouver-based board recruiter Elizabeth Watson, but women seem to be perceived as a bigger risk than men.

"I bet that if we put résumés on the table without names or pictures, we'd have more women on boards," she says.

The other big barrier is the long-standing preference for adding experienced CEOs to corporate boards - a group whose ranks are similarly lacking in women.

No women on board Nine of Canada's largest public companies in the S&P/TSX 60 index have no female directors on their boards. Most of those companies are in the traditionally male-dominated world of mining: 

  • Barrick Gold Corp.
  • Biovail Corp.
  • Canadian Oil Sands Trust 
  • Eldorado Gold Corp.
  • Enerplus Resources Fund 
  • First Quantum Minerals Ltd.
  • Iamgold Corp.
  • Inmet Mining Corp.
  • Yamana Gold Inc.

Jane Peveret, a Calgary director on the boards of EnCana Corp. and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, says boards want people with both relevant work experience and demonstrated broad judgment. Former CEOs most easily fit both criteria, she says, and women are still struggling to rise to the top in this pool.

"What we really need to do is get more women running companies, or at least more women in senior operational roles in companies," says Ms. Peveret, who was formerly CEO of British Columbia Transmission Corp. and Union Gas Ltd.

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Many male and female directors also say personal recommendations remain the key factor for choosing new directors, and woman are too often not part of the right social networks. Observers have noted women sometimes don't even realize there are networks they're not part of.

On a more pragmatic level, some say the difficulty breaking on to boards is not a problem unique to women. It is getting harder for anyone - male or female - to join a large corporate board as board sizes have shrunk over the past decade.

"I know far more qualified men who cannot get on a board than women," says Epcor Utilities Inc. chairman Hugh Bolton, who is also on the board of Toronto-Dominion Bank.

The one thing that can't be blamed for the slow progress is a lack of attention to the issue.

Over the past two decades, numerous groups have organized to tackle the problem, offering databases and directories of available women, starting mentoring programs, or sponsoring research on the issue.

Most recently this fall, the new Canadian Board Diversity Council was created with a self-declared goal to boost the percentage of women on the boards of Canada's 500 largest organizations to 20 per cent by 2013 from 13 per cent in 2007.

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Aiding the battle is more research suggesting the presence of women on boards can actually boost a company's bottom line. Research firm Catalyst Inc., for example, completed a U.S. study in 2007 on Fortune 500 boards, which found that return on equity was 53 per cent higher at companies with the most women on their boards compared with those with the fewest women. The argument is that people with different perspectives can improve the quality of decisions made by a board, says Deborah Gillis, Catalyst's vice-president of North America.

One reform that has not been on the agenda in Canada is the idea of imposed quotas, such as the one Norway introduced that requires public company boards to have 40 per cent women directors. There's no evidence of a broad appetite for quotas in Canada.

Quebec Senator Céline Hervieux-Payette introduced a private member's bill in the Senate in June calling for gender parity on boards of public companies, but it got little attention and has not been widely embraced in the political realm or in the director community.

Instead, many hope that there is a demographic bulge of senior women who are now old enough to have the experience necessary for boards and who are nearing retirement and willing to join them.

Ms. Briscoe says one sign of true progress is the difference she's seeing in the male-dominated world of mining, arguably the most stubborn bastion of change for women. More women are joining executive ranks, she reports, and some - like herself - are also joining boards.

"I'm actually quite heartened," she says.

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The Globe and Mail's Board Games 2009 evaluates and ranks corporate governance practices in Canada.

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