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Survey shows finding diversity candidates is a strong priority for directors in oil and gas companies.

Canada's resource companies are increasingly turning to formal recruitment processes to find more women for their boards as they respond to calls for greater diversity in senior ranks at major companies.

A recent survey of corporate directors by the Canadian Board Diversity Council shows resource sector boards are more likely to use search firms to find board nominees, and 71 per cent of directors in the mining and energy sectors said their companies "always" or "sometimes" ask the firms to include women or other diversity candidates on the short list of director candidates.

Rory Tyler, an executive recruiter in the Calgary office of global search firm Korn Ferry, said the proportion of oil and gas companies seeking women may even be higher than 71 per cent now, based on his recent experience. Almost all his searches for energy companies are specifically for female directors, he says. "My sense is it's on a bit of an inflection point. Virtually every search we're doing has either a strong preference or a must-have or, at a minimum, a need to see some diversity candidates on the list."

As The Globe and Mail reported in the 13th annual Board Games report on Monday, women currently account for just 7.8 per cent of directors of energy companies in the S&P/TSX composite index. However, Mr. Tyler believes the number will climb as searches that are in the pipeline turn into new board appointments next year.

The diversity council survey found 35 per cent of directors in the resource sector said their boards "always" use search firms to find board nominees, and a further 47 per cent said they "sometimes" use search firms – a sign of a growing desire to broaden the pool of candidates beyond personal contacts of existing board members.

The numbers far outstrip other sectors which already have a greater proportion of female directors on their boards. Just 3 per cent of directors of retail companies, for example, reported they always use search firms for board nominees, while 19 per cent of directors on financial services boards reported always using search firms.

Tanya van Biesen, who is in charge of diversity searches at recruiting firm Spencer Stuart, said she has seen "tremendous demand" for female board members in the past few years across all industry sectors and from all sizes of companies.

"In mining specifically, we've had more inquiries from that sector for diverse candidates than ever before – not surprisingly as they are in a come-from-behind situation," she said.

Women account for just 11 per cent of directors of mining companies, but they are joining boards at a rapid rate. Spencer Stuart data on Canada's 100 largest companies show women accounted for 42 per cent of new director appointments at mining companies between 2012 and 2014, a major increase from just 12 per cent of new appointments between 2009 and 2011.

Securities regulators in Canada have unveiled new rules taking effect Dec. 31 that will require companies to report publicly to shareholders about their policies to promote gender diversity in senior management and on their boards of directors, or else explain why they have opted not to have such policies.

The pending rule change has prompted more boards to professionalize their processes to find more women for boards, searching outside the personal networks of existing board members.

Stan Magidson, a Calgary-based lawyer who heads the Institute of Corporate Directors, a national association representing 8,700 board members across Canada, said he has seen boards in the oil patch show much greater interest in diversity.

"Nominating committees now in the energy sector in Calgary are more regularly engaging search firms, and are asking search firms to serve up the best candidates, and are expressly asking for diverse candidates and women," Mr. Magidson said.

The Institute of Corporate Directors is also seeing more women enroll in its director training programs in Calgary, where 23 per cent of graduates from the program have been women. While the proportion slightly lags the 29 per cent proportion of women graduates nationally, Mr. Magidson said the program helps create a larger pool of qualified candidates for boards.