Two statistics in The Globe and Mail's latest Board Games report caught my attention: 7 per cent of S&P/TSX companies disclosed strategies to increase female representation in their boardrooms, and only 4 per cent set out clear objectives to achieve their goals. After decades of work intended to raise awareness about the diverse talents and strengths women bring to corporate boardrooms, why are companies failing to fully engage in their commitment to board diversification?
The justifications offered up initially are unconvincing. The most frequently cited answers, in fact, include insufficient numbers of women, insufficient means of identifying talent and a lack of interest on the part of women themselves. For many decades, both at a local level in Quebec and throughout Canada, the number of female graduates in the fields sought out by boards of directors is often equal to or greater than the number of male graduates. And women hold a growing number of strategic positions within organizations, making them excellent candidates for board positions.
The female talent pool is deep, and women are increasingly stepping into high-profile positions and driving up their numbers with the help of the media and their own influence and through their participation in socio-economic activities. They are actively seeking board positions as attested by their participation in governance training programs and social projects.
Although more women are participating now than at the turn of the century, the female participation rate is inexplicably low for the sizable corresponding talent pool. It raises the question, then, of whether the candidate selection criteria for these posts somehow favour men. For example, often candidates must have experience as a chief executive officer – few women currently serve as CEOs despite their knowledge and skills – or must have experience serving on another board of directors. These two requirements impede women's access to boardrooms, and also prevent younger candidates, both male and female, from sharing their talents on corporate boards.
Shouldn't we revisit these criteria, and reformulate them to open the door to high-quality directors from senior leadership positions (vice-presidents) and individuals trained in corporate governance with the required skills and knowledge. A growing number of women and men are training in these specific fields and certainly have much to contribute. Why don't businesses, in a climate of profound transformation, actively solicit new talent by setting term limits for their directors?
We need companies to commit to taking steps to ensure that men and women can contribute equally to the success of their companies as board directors and in executive roles until the gap has been closed. More than a symbolic gesture, this commitment must take the form of concrete actions and goals reflecting a desire to attract top talent, male or female.
Is this utopian thinking? Not at all. One viable solution, according to a study by Yvan Allaire, would be to institute a policy of one woman for every two board vacancies, which would bring, with a board turnover rate of 7 per cent, the ratio of women on boards to close to 40 per cent in eight years. Alternatively, with an all-women policy for departing directors, we could be close to 40 per cent in four years. It seems to me that is a fair and value-added solution for all parties.
Louise Champoux-Paillé is a Montreal-based corporate director who has worked with many organizations promoting women in senior roles. She was a 2014 recipient of a Governor-General's Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case, which recognizes people working for gender equality in Canada.