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Kathleen Taylor is the first woman to lead the board of a major Canadian bank as the chair at the Royal Bank of Canada.Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

There has been a lot of discussion this year about the representation of women on Canadian corporate boards and in corner offices.

The business media heralded the appointment of Kathleen Taylor as chair at Royal Bank of Canada. Headlines greeted General Motors' first female chief executive officer. The Ontario Securities Commission tabled a discussion paper outlining what some call a "comply or explain" approach, to encourage companies to recruit more women to top jobs and directorships by requiring them to disclose their progress and practices. Jim Leech of the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan went further, calling for regulations and quotas that would compel companies to act, and saying that the time for discussion is over.

But our latest C-Suite survey shows this hot subject in the media has barely been a topic of discussion in corporate ranks. Female executives are overwhelmingly concerned about the issue, but they are outnumbered by their male colleagues. Overall, a tiny fraction of the business community sees the representation of women in positions of power in corporate Canada as a business priority.

Many executives who say their company has no women on their board also say they are satisfied with that number. It's not surprising, then, that few have implemented any specific policies or practices to promote women on their boards or in their corner offices, and that most oppose regulations that would compel or even encourage them to do so.

High-profile exceptional cases are proving to be just that, and it is astonishing that so few corporate leaders recognize this as an issue affecting their competitiveness and performance.

How does a company that has a consumer interface not want insight and direction from half of the population? How does a company that needs to acquire social license for its resource extraction plans not want the perspective of women at the centre of its decision-making? How does a company that wants the best talent possible on its board think it is acceptable to have no women?

If, as some suggest, the problem is a shortage of qualified female candidates, then one would expect to see companies unhappy with that situation and looking for ways to redress it. Instead, we see complacency, which indicates that senior-level promotion and board appointments are being made more on the basis of networks than on best business practices.

Apathy about low levels of female representation in corporate Canada will not persist for long. The question is how the male senior executives who currently lead our largest companies will respond. If they continue to ignore the need for internal policies and voluntary practices to close the gender gap in positions of power, they run the risk that government, which is increasingly run by women in Canada, will do it for them.

David Herle is principal and Alex Swann is vice-president of Gandalf Group.

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