Women deserve better representation on Canada’s boards

Since only 12 per cent of board members in Canada are women and most executives don’t care, it’s time to impose gender quotas.

The news that “most Canadian executives don’t care” that only 12 per cent of board members are women is all the more reason to impose gender quotas.

Late in December, a KPMG survey of board members and senior executives revealed that fewer than 42 per cent of them are concerned at all about this blatant discrimination against half our population. Indeed, nearly two-thirds of board members are “satisfied” with the number of women in their executive suites and more than half are happy with the number of women on their boards.

Given this reality, it’s no surprise that the vast majority of senior executives want nothing to be done to change this — no “comply or explain” sanctions from the securities regulators, and certainly no quotas.

The reason appears to be that women just don’t have the skills.

When asked why there were no women directors on the board of his bank, a former CEO of the Royal Bank of Canada, said: “Because we couldn’t find one who was qualified.”

But that was back in 1976 and the CEO was Earle McLaughlin, who was promptly roasted by feminists and the media for his backward views.

Yet now, nearly two generations later, the progress on getting women onto public company boards has been infinitesimal.

Today, Canadian business proclaims that diversity makes better decisions, smarter cities and richer countries. We even promote our diversity abroad in order to lure talent and investment from elsewhere.

We talk diversity, but we don’t walk it.

Worse still, if we were discriminating against women because they’re a minority, that’s at least understandable from a historical standpoint. Indeed, 65 per cent of Canada’s half-million bank employees are women, and 60 per cent of their customers are women.

In Toronto in particular, this irony is especially galling. It’s very likely that this year Toronto’s visible minority population will tip and become the visible majority. In other words, there will be more non-white and non-males than ever.

So the biggest population group in the GTA is or will soon be women of colour. Don’t even ask how many of them are on the boards of public companies.

The reality is the percentage of women board members of all backgrounds rose a glacial 1 per cent from 2007 to 2012. More shameful, 40 per cent of Canada’s public companies still have no women board members at all. None.

By whose calculus is this progress?

If other measures of success and responsibility, like profits or customer engagement or corporate social responsibility, had grown by such tiny amounts, the CEO would be out the door and his company would be stumbling under the withering scorn of angry customers and nose-holding shareholders.

Are you seriously telling me that only 10 per cent of even “elite” women are qualified to sit on a board?

“Letting nature take its course” and “waiting for women to rise in management” isn’t going to change anything.

The Ontario Securities Commission is considering public shaming, hoping it alone will change what reasonableness has failed to do. It won’t, mainly because explaining unacceptable behaviour is one of the great skills of our age and marketplace. What’s more, “comply or explain” has a spotty record in most countries.

They’ve all moved — sometimes as a first step, sometimes as a last — to mandatory quotas. So should we.

Canadians shouldn’t fear quotas. Indeed, we are world leaders in using quotas to protect our nation culturally and economically. In fact, without quotas imposed years ago by Ottawa, Canadians today wouldn’t be reading Canadians books, hearing Canadian songs, watching prime-time Canadian shows on TV or reading Canadian-owned newspapers like the Toronto Star.

But the first place the OSC should intervene is to introduce term limits.

A board seat is not a life peerage or even a Senate appointment. How about eight years and off, like in the U.K.? This will open the opportunity to “renew” the boardroom mix of skills, expertise and behaviours. Without turnover, no new entrants need apply — however perfectly diverse and competent they may be, and no matter how many are certified “board ready” by the Institute of Corporate Directors.

I’d also suggest that by spring 2018, a full five proxy seasons away, all public company boards have a minimum of 33 per cent women.

How good do women have to be?

As the renowned French feminist and former cabinet minister, Francoise Giroud, said, “La femme serait vraiment l’egale de l’homme le jour ou, a un poste important, on designerait une femme incompetente.” In other words, not every woman director candidate will be Christine Lagarde. But then, not every male candidate will be Mark Carney.

So if ever Canadian business can make a resolution it can actually keep this new year, it’s here and now.

And if nothing happens in 2014? Canadians shareholders like you and me can demand that companies stop using wilful blindness and benign neglect as management tools.

After all, 2013 was the year Canada had six women premiers. They weren’t appointed; they were voted in by the “shareholders.”

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