Stand up and step out

The lack of women on boards and in the executive suite is the canary in the coal mine in corporate Canada today.

The business case for having more women on boards and in senior executive roles is clear — companies that achieve high levels of diversity deliver stronger financial results. Diversity encompasses all aspects of difference that are relevant to a company’s strategy — geography, gender, ethnicity and functional experience are but a few. The lack of women on boards and in the executive suite is the canary in the coal mine in corporate Canada today. A survey of 1,000 TSX issuers conducted in 2013 by the Ontario Securities Commission (OSC) showed that the level of representation of women on boards and in executive officer positions is extremely low: 57% of respondents had no women directors, 28% had one woman director and just 3% had a woman chair of the board. The OSC has reacted to this by proposing a "comply or explain" regime to encourage greater representation of women in the C-suite and on boards.

Regulations notwithstanding, to foster a high-performance economy in Canada, organizations must take meaningful action to promote diversity at the boardroom level. Change needs to happen now; Canada lags behind several developed countries, including the US, UK and Australia. That change starts with the following five steps to promote women on boards.

Make an authentic and visible commitment

As part of their responsibility to oversee the strategic direction, financial performance and risk management of their companies, management and boards of directors should have an understanding of how diversity affects key areas of the board and company mandate. Diversity is fundamental to success in areas such as talent attraction and development, culture and globalization, to name a few. The board and CEO have an important role to play in setting the tone at the top.

Set measurable goals to move the needle

What gets measured gets done. Companies that set clear and specific goals for board composition get results. And progress in relation to these goals must be measured at regular intervals to analyze where a tactic may or may not be working to support diversity.

Understand and address barriers/biases

It’s human nature to align ourselves with those who are most like us. When we acknowledge our tendency to gravitate toward certain groups of people we can take steps to adjust our decision-making and promote better diversity. At the board level, that means building transparent nomination criteria and defining a selection process. Board positions should also be promoted broadly and across unconventional media to ensure exposure to diverse groups.

Recognize and reward positive behaviours

Identify ways to acknowledge progress. If the CEO publicly acknowledges leaders in your company who are promoting women or who are building diverse teams, it sends the message that inclusive leadership is valued.

Embed inclusive practices in business processes

Ensuring an inclusive environment isn’t just about having equal representation between men and women at the board level. Real inclusiveness is about creating a workplace where people feel comfortable being themselves and sharing their ideas, opinions, perspectives and experiences freely. That’s why it’s so important for companies to ensure leading practices are embedded in the company’s talent strategy — from recruitment to performance management to promotion. Inclusive practices need to be written into the board’s nomination process as well.

All of these efforts must be accompanied by a commitment to open and honest communication and recognition that building an inclusive culture is of the utmost importance. Public, private, big or small — all companies should be focused on action when it comes to increasing the number of women on boards. After all, it’s good for business and Canadian companies have a long way to go.



About the Author

Fiona Macfarlane


Fiona Macfarlane is managing partner of EY's British Columbia practice and the firm's chief inclusiveness officer.

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