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Beatrix Dart, executive director of the Initiative for Women in Business at the Rotman School of Management speaks before the start of the Bloomberg Women On Boards event in Toronto on Tuesday.

Cole Burston/Bloomberg

After years of ineffectual cajoling, new targets and quotas may be the only way to get Canadian companies to boost representation of women on corporate boards, according to Beatrix Dart, a business professor at the University of Toronto.

"I'm happy to be a quota woman if that sets the level playing field," Ms. Dart, who serves on the board of construction company EllisDon Corp., said. Ms. Dart was speaking at a panel discussion at Bloomberg LP's Women on Boards event Tuesday in Toronto.

"Just get over it. Change it. Put it out there and get it done. Thirty years of talk? How much more do we need?" Representation of women on boards rose only 1 percentage point to 12 per cent in 2016 from a year earlier, even after Canadian regulators announced a "comply-or-explain" rule in October, 2014. It required companies on the Toronto Stock Exchange to disclose the number of women in director and senior executive roles, as well as their diversity plans. The federal government proposed a similar law in September that would affect about 40 per cent of publicly listed firms.

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Women filled 15 per cent of 521 vacant Canadian corporate board seats this year, according to a September review published by the Canadian Securities Administrators, an umbrella group of provincial regulators. Almost half of the TSX-listed companies still have zero women on the board, according to a report by Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, a Toronto-based law firm.

The government could lead the way in imposing quotas and giving procurement contracts to companies with good diversity policies, said Ms. Dart, who is also the steering committee chair of the Canadian chapter of the 30% Club.

"By putting a quota in for crown corporations, it also signals that the government might not shy away from a quota," Ms. Dart said. "That stick is out there and the government might use it if there is no other corrective mechanism."

A spokesperson for Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Sarah Kavanagh, former commissioner at the Ontario Securities Commission, who worked on the new rules, said the results of the first year were incredibly disappointing.

"I am just shocked by the results," Ms. Kavanagh, who sits on the board of Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc. and HudBay Minerals Inc., said. "I thought it would make a much bigger difference."

Ms. Kavanagh said she hopes Canada doesn't have to go to targets right away. "I'm pretty sure this year you're going to see a little movement on the disclosure and a little more emphasis on the importance of adding women."

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Changing the definition of merit to include broader skills and not just executive experience will also help get more women onto corporate boards, she said.

Small investors have a big role to play in improving corporate diversity because large investors perceive it to be riskier, said Fred Pinto, head of wealth and asset management at Qtrade Financial Group, including its OceanRock Investments Inc. unit. Both are part of the Desjardins Group, the largest co-operative in the country with about $261-billion in assets.

Mr. Pinto led OceanRock's unsuccessful challenge to push Burger King parent Restaurant Brands International Inc. to add women to its all-male board.

"Investors are waiting for someone else to speak up on the issue," he said.

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