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gender diversity

Spurred by new regulations requiring companies to report the number of women they have in executive and board positions, organizations are announcing an array of events aimed at helping women promote themselves for board roles.

As in-boxes fill with invitations for fall events, initiatives to promote women to senior business roles are taking centre stage.

This week alone, two new programs for women are having their official launch events in Toronto. The 30% Club, which is aimed at convincing board chairs to boost the proportion of female directors, is launching its Canadian chapter at a Tuesday event, while Women Get on Board, a new advisory service for would-be female directors, is holding its launch Wednesday.

Spurred by new regulations requiring companies to report the number of women they have in executive and board positions, organizations are announcing an array of events – breakfasts, cocktail evenings, speeches and panel discussions – aimed at helping women promote themselves for board roles. There are informal networking events, formal mentoring programs, director training courses and programs to encourage more women to seek senior executive roles.

Beatrix Dart, who oversees the Initiative for Women in Business at the University of Toronto, says there are so many programs that it is becoming hard for women to know what to do.

"There's so much stuff out there, it's almost a little bit too much," Ms. Dart says.

Choosing where to focus may depend in part on a woman's seniority, she says. For example, women who are already C-suite-level executives – such as chief executive officers, chief financial officers or chief operating officers – may have all the business skills to serve on a large corporate board, but may want to improve their network by participating in a mentoring program where they are matched with experienced corporate directors.

Other women who are in senior roles, but are not in top C-suite-level positions, may want help getting the types of jobs that would make them more eligible for corporate boards.

Ms. Dart's program at the University of Toronto runs the Judy Project, for example, which is a one-week program aimed at helping senior-level women prepare to move into executive jobs. All participants must be nominated by their CEOs, ensuring they are all C-suite candidates.

Susan Varty says that for all the programs that have launched, there are still gaps that new organizations can fill.

She and business partner Deborah Rosati recently launched Women Get on Board, a new for-profit company aimed at giving women hands-on help to move onto boards.

Women Get on Board will offer its members training seminars and round-table events, but will also help women create what Ms. Varty calls personal marketing plans. That includes helping women write résumés for board positions and develop a strong social media presence on sites such as LinkedIn.

She says many other programs give women advice, but don't directly help them write pitches or build personal branding plans.

"We wouldn't have found success if we weren't filling a gap," she says. "It's just like people invest in your education – it's almost like you're investing in your career and yourself."

Sharon Ranson is already an experienced director, but joined Women Get on Board because she liked the focus on educational sessions and networking.

"To me networking is just an important component of anything you do in life," she says. "So being out there, meeting people, hearing about opportunities, hearing about other peoples' experiences – I see networking as a positive thing building relationships with a community of women who are both on boards or looking to be on boards."

She is also looking for new board opportunities. Although the former financial industry executive serves on the Sprott Inc. board, Ms. Ranson says she was previously on five boards but several ended when the companies were taken over.

"I find it a very fluid thing being on boards – it's not like you get a job and it will go forever."

Women Get on Board has a similar name to the longer-running Women on Board mentoring program run by advocacy group Catalyst Canada, but the two programs have no connection.

Catalyst Canada executive director Alex Johnston says Women on Board is intended to help executive women by matching them with a mentor who is already a board chair or a senior corporate director. The expectation is that the mentor will help women make contacts to join a board, offering advice and a powerful personal reference.

"These women are typically executive-level women who report to the CEO, and are pretty much board ready," Ms. Johnston says. "It's not really working on their skills, it's working on their networking and visibility."

Catalyst is also working to help with the launch of the 30% Club, an organization founded in Britain that is now spreading to chapters around the world.

Its members are senior board chairs and CEOs, who commit to helping bolster the proportion of women in their organizations. The name refers to its goal of boosting the proportion of women on corporate boards to 30 per cent, but the goal is an aspiration and members do not have to adopt quotas or create a 30-per-cent target.

Catalyst Canada executive director Alex Johnston says it is positive that many different programs are emerging to tackle different aspects of the move to get more women in senior roles, but says it also means women have to be selective about what to do so they don't waste time or their money.

"All this activity is great, but you do want to make sure there is a quality component. ... I would scrutinize the result in terms of people going into a program and moving onto a board in a relatively short period of time afterward. You want to make sure you are looking at the outcomes for that program."