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Women occupied 14.5 per cent of the board seats at TSX-listed companies as of July 31, according to the report by law firm Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP. That’s up from 12.6 per cent in 2016.Arpad Benedek/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The number of women serving on the boards of Toronto Stock Exchange-listed companies edged roughly two percentage points higher in the first half of the year, according to a new report.

Women occupied 14.5 per cent of the board seats at TSX-listed companies as of July 31, according to the report by law firm Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP. That's up from 12.6 per cent in 2016.

The report, published Monday, comes nearly three years after securities regulators implemented new rules requiring companies to disclose, on an annual basis, the number of women they have on their boards and in executive roles. Companies are also asked to disclose their policies for improving board diversity and their targets for the number of women on their boards and in executive positions.

Under the so-called "comply or explain" standard, companies that choose not to abide by the rules must explain their reasons for not adopting the policies.

The Osler report found that 47 per cent of companies now have a written board-diversity policy, up from 34 per cent a year ago. However, only 12 per cent of companies have a target for female representation on boards, compared with 10 per cent at this time last year. Both percentages are based on the total number of companies that chose to disclose those statistics.

The reason companies most frequently cite for not implementing a written board-diversity policy or formal targets is that they don't want to compromise the principles of meritocracy.

"I think meritocracy is something Canadians hold dear, as we should," said Tanya van Biesen, executive director of Catalyst Canada, a non-profit organization aimed at helping women advance in the workplace.

"But research has shown it is a place that is ripe with unconscious bias, and so it is a real 'watch out' zone for using that as one of the reasons to not take action," Ms. van Biesen added.

Corporate law and governance expert Anita Anand said progress has been slow and incremental, and urged regulators to rethink the comply-or-explain approach that they have taken.

"I think the time has come to examine whether that is the correct approach, and whether a more direct policy, which is not entirely voluntary, should be on the table," said Ms. Anand, who serves as the J.R. Kimber chair in investor protection and corporate governance at the University of Toronto.

Regulators should examine a range of other policy options, including mandatory quotas for the number of women on boards, or requiring companies to have a diversity policy in place, Ms. Anand said.

Ms. van Biesen said she would like to see more companies set targets for board diversity, much like they would for any other business objective.

"Whether it's revenue objectives or budget objectives or expense objectives, companies set targets. I think this is another place to set a target to have people work towards," Ms. van Biesen said, noting that research shows such strategies can be highly effective.

"That way they can work towards their own goals and control how they progress along this continuum."

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