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c-suite survey

Corner of Bay and Adelaide streets in Toronto’s Financial District on July 25, 2013.Gloria Nieto/The Globe and Mail

Most Canadian executives aren't worried about the proportion of women on corporate boards and in executive ranks in Canada, despite the fact that many companies do not have even a single female director.

The latest C-Suite survey of business executives also shows that while there is scant representation of women at the top of Canadian companies, there is strong opposition to any kind of regulation that would force change.

The survey reveals that only 42 per cent of executives are very or somewhat concerned about the number of women on boards and in senior management positions at leading Canadian corporations. Almost two-thirds are satisfied with the number of women in their own executive ranks, and more than half are satisfied with the number of women on their company's board.

That's the case even though 60 per cent of the executives who responded said their firms have no female directors at all, and the average proportion of women around the boardroom tables is just 9 per cent.

Executives say the reason for this scarcity is the dearth of qualified women, not any discrimination against them.

"I do think that it makes sense to have diversity on a board, and it would be great to have a woman on our board, but it comes down to whether there would be someone who would be suitable to join," said Kathy Demuth, chief financial officer at Edmonton-based ZCL Composites Inc., a maker of fibreglass storage tanks.

ZCL has no women on its board, and Ms. Demuth is the only woman on the nine-member senior management team.

She said she would not want to see quotas or mandates for female board membership, because that would send a message that some people are on boards simply because of their gender.

"That might end up devaluing the input that a woman can have on a board," she said. "It needs to come down to the skill set."

Ms. Demuth said finding qualified women for boards or executive positions in the industrial manufacturing sector is tough because the top ranks of the industry are still dominated by "white males." While that is changing slowly, "there is a long road [ahead]" despite the increased numbers of women going into engineering and other previously male-dominated fields, she said.

Scott Edmonds, chief executive officer at Webtech Wireless Inc. in Vancouver, said he too resists the idea of any sort of requirement for female board representation in the private sector, although it might make sense to have targets for crown corporations or government agencies involved in public policy. "There is a lot of regulation on public companies already, I don't think adding to that serves the best purpose."

Companies such as Webtech are "meritocracies," Mr. Edmonds insisted. "The sole measure of advancement in this organization is performance." There is a broad gender and ethnic mix across the organization, with no preference to anyone, he said, and over time the senior positions will be become more diverse as a natural progression.

He noted that General Motors recently named Mary Barra as CEO, not because she is a woman but because "she is the best candidate."

Only 13 per cent of the companies surveyed have a policy or process in place for increasing the number of women in senior roles. And 56 per cent of the executives said they oppose the idea – floated by the Ontario Securities Commission – that companies should describe their policies for increasing female representation or explain why they don't have them.

Still, some executives feel the "comply or explain" approach is a good compromise.

"It clearly makes the issue one that boards and companies have to be responsive to, and give some thought to," said Michael Bernstein, CEO of Toronto-based Capstone Infrastructure Corp. "But if the specific circumstances mean they are not able to comply, then they are given a chance to explain why they haven't."

Mr. Bernstein does not support quotas or mandatory levels for women on boards, but he said it is also abundantly clear that diversity "is something very beneficial in guiding companies."

Capstone, which has one woman on its seven-member board, found there were "quite a few" qualified female candidates when it went looking, Mr. Bernstein said, although "the pool is not as large as it should be." That will change over time as more women move into executive ranks, he said.

Willy Kruh, global chair of consumer markets at KPMG, said it is "stunning" that there are so few women on boards and that executives seem so unconcerned about it.

If companies aren't seeking out the many talented and experienced women who are potential board members, they "are not getting a diverse perspective, and not getting a representation of the fabric of this country," he said.

While some sectors – such as mining – may have some trouble finding qualified and experienced women, there are still some available, Mr. Kruh said. And in other fields such as services, there is plenty of choice, he said.

Follow Richard Blackwell on Twitter: @blackwellglobeOpens in a new window

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