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As corporate regulators focus their attention on lagging diversity in senior roles, the proportion of women of women has corporate boards has climbed steadily. However, the proportion of visible minority directors is continuing to decline sharply.Jacob Wackerhausen/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The proportion of women on corporate boards has climbed steadily as regulators focus attention on lagging diversity in senior roles, but the proportion of visible minority directors is continuing to decline sharply.

A study of boards by the Canadian Board Diversity Council, a Toronto-based organization that advocates for greater diversity among corporate directors, shows women now account for 17.1 per cent of directors of companies in the FP500 list, which includes a broad array of Crown corporations, private companies, Canadian subsidiaries of multinational firms and public companies listed on stock exchanges.

Women have climbed slowly but steadily in recent years from 10.9 per cent of directors in 2001 to 13.7 per cent by 2009 and 15.6 per cent in 2013, the study shows.

However, visible minorities hold just 2 per cent of board seats, a decline from 5.3 per cent in 2010, and people who report having disabilities fill just 1.4 per cent of board seats, down from 2.9 per cent in 2010. Aboriginal directors hold 0.8 per cent of board seats, a number unchanged from 2010.

Diversity council founder Pamela Jeffery said it is disappointing to see a decline in visible minority directors while Canada's population – especially in major cities where head offices are located – becomes steadily more diverse.

"I think it underscores what we know, which is that most board seats are filled in a less-than-desirable way, with board members sitting at the table asking each other who they know," she said. "Sadly, aboriginal people or people with disabilities are not in their networks."

Ms. Jeffery said she is encouraged, however, that the rate of increase for women on boards has accelerated, growing by 1.5 percentage points between 2013 and 2014 after increasing by just 0.32 percentage points in each year on average between 2001 and 2012.

However, Ms. Jeffery said the level of gender diversity remains low compared to many other major countries. Britain, for example, will have 25 per cent women on boards of its top 100 companies by next year, she said.

"We've got to increase this pace of change if we're going to keep up with the rest of the world," she said.

The diversity council says the current pace of increase would mean Canada's corporate boards would reach parity for women by 2083.

To speed up diversity in senior corporate roles, the council is calling on boards to put three "diverse" people on each long list of potential candidates for open board seats, and to replace at least one of every three retiring directors with a diversity candidate, Ms. Jeffery said.

The study included a survey of 354 directors, who were asked about new regulations taking effect Dec. 31 that will require companies to report on their policies to bolster diversity in senior roles or else explain why they have opted not to have any policies in place. The policy was initiated by the Ontario Securities Commission and is being adopted by a total of seven provinces and two territories.

While 63 per cent of directors said they support the new reporting rule and 91 per cent said diversity is important to them, only 25 per cent reported that their companies have written diversity policies in place, up from 21 per cent last year.

Ms. Jeffery said she hopes the low proportion that have diversity policies in place so far is not a bad sign that many companies will not comply with the new rules to report on their policies.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the Canadian Board Diversity Council as a non-profit association. In fact, the Council is owned by The Jeffery Group Limited, an Ontario-incorporated company.