The proportion of women on the boards of all Toronto Stock Exchange companies has remained virtually flat over the past year despite hopes that new regulations on gender diversity would spur significant changes in Canada's boardrooms.
A report by Toronto law firm Osler, Hoskins & Harcourt LLP says women held an average of 13 per cent of board seats at TSX-listed companies as of July 31, a modest increase from 12.1 per cent in 2015. The average percentage of women in executive ranks was unchanged at 15 per cent in 2016.
The percentage of companies with no women on their boards was also almost unchanged at 46 per cent as of July 31, compared with 47 per cent in 2015.
The Osler survey looked at 733 TSX-listed companies that had reported on their gender-diversity policies by July 31, 2016, under "comply or explain" rules introduced in 2015. Companies were required to disclose their approach to gender diversity and whether they have written diversity policies.
The regulations, spearheaded by the Ontario Securities Commission, require companies to either adopt diversity policies aimed at boosting more women on boards and in executive roles, or explain why they have opted not to have such policies.
Osler lawyer Andrew MacDougall, who co-wrote the report, said regulators and supporters hoped that the rule change would spur companies to hire more women, but the impact has been disappointing so far.
"I was expecting better this year," Mr. MacDougall said. "The results are a wake-up call that really we do need people to step up and take more action. I do think that if nothing further is done by industry, then the government is going to take further steps."
He said he hopes that change has been modest because the regulation is only a year old and because it is easier to change policies and harder to make personnel changes.
"What I'm concerned about is that people may rest on their laurels and not take the harder step of actually making changes to the composition of the board and taking actions to improve the representation of women in leadership positions and executive officer ranks," he said.
The report says 34 per cent of TSX companies have adopted written diversity policies as of July 31, an increase from 30 per cent at the same time last year. But it notes that some of the policies are not actually aimed at bolstering gender diversity, and some expressly state that gender is not a factor that will be considered in board selection. Only 26 per cent of companies have adopted diversity policies specifically aimed at nominating women to their boards, the report says.
Companies also remained reluctant in 2016 to set firm internal targets for themselves, with only 10 per cent saying they have a target they hope to achieve for the number of women on their boards, an increase from 8 per cent last year. Only 2 per cent of companies have targets for their proportion of female executive officers.
Mr. MacDougall said many companies do not want to adopt specific targets because they do not want to be tied to them or do not believe that targets are the right tool. But he said targets give companies something concrete to work toward and are more likely to foster change.
He said "a vast majority" of the smaller companies listed on the TSX are not adding more women to their senior ranks, which is pulling down the overall statistics.
Canada's largest companies have a better track record, with S&P/TSX 60 index companies reporting that they have an average of 24 per cent female board directors, up modestly from 23 per cent a year ago. Three companies, or 5 per cent of the top 60, have no women on their boards, while 85 per cent reported having two or more women.
While those proportions are little changed from 2015, Mr. MacDougall said, many of those companies have already made a lot of changes and are starting from a higher base in 2016.
TSX 60 companies did show an improvement in women in executive ranks, reporting their average proportion of female executive officers climbed to 18 per cent from 15 per cent last year.