Metrics are not a solution

If reporting metrics were the solution to gender equity, the past 40 years should have demonstrated that it does not work.

“Hire and promote first on the basis of integrity; second, motivation; third, capacity; fourth, understanding; fifth, knowledge; and last and least, experience.”

I am always struck that in this profound quote by Dee Hock, founder and former CEO of Visa Inc., neither diversity nor gender is mentioned as a criterion for hiring. However, when he wrote it, Hock’s organization did not fall under a “comply or explain” instrument such as last year’s rule amendments to the OSC Disclosure of Corporate Governance Practices (National Instrument 58-101), which require the annual disclosure of the number and percentage of women on boards of directors and in executive positions for publicly traded companies.

According to the latest report from the approximately 700 TSX companies that have provided information, the results are less than stellar. Fewer than 50% of companies have at least one woman on their board and only 15% have added a woman in the past year.

More disturbing is the fact that more than two-thirds of organizations have not even taken the time to write a policy for the identification and nomination of female directors. This raises two questions: is the rule working? Or is this too simplistic an approach?

About 15 years ago I attended the annual Catalyst award dinner in New York. At the time, Catalyst was known as the leading US think-tank on issues of gender equality in the workplace. I was impressed that virtually every Fortune 500 company was represented by a C-level executive.

In 1962 Catalyst’s founder, writer, advocate and feminist Felice Schwartz, stated that the reason there were so few women in positions of power in Fortune 500 companies was that their leaders did not measure the numbers. Her hypothesis was that if there was a hard count of the actual number of women in positions of power, Fortune 500 leaders would be shocked into taking action.

When I attended my first dinner in 2000 there was only one female CEO in the Fortune 500 list: presidential candidate Carly Fiorina. Very few women were in executive positions and on boards. Thus started the annual Catalyst Census, which highlights the number of women in management and corporate boards across North America.

At the dinner, the incoming US president of Catalyst lamented the small number of women in positions of power. She predicted that, given the existing numbers and pace of change over the previous four decades, it would take 250 years to get to gender parity in the executive positions of the Fortune 500.

This was not an encouraging prediction but one that certainly got our attention.

A few years ago I was invited to attend one of the first Canadian Catalyst dinners, where every Financial Post 500 corporation was represented by a C-level leader. Imagine my surprise when I heard almost the exact same speech about the pitiful representation numbers of women, including the 250-year prediction.

The speaker — now the global president of Catalyst — offered her solution to this conundrum: “We just have to try harder.” Immediately that famous definition of insanity popped into my mind — i.e., doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. If reporting metrics were the solution, clearly the past 40 years have demonstrated that it doesn’t work.

If showing the representation of executive women had been an effective strategy over the past four decades, would securities regulators have to resort to National Instrument 58-101 today? Presumably, if the more gentle “comply or explain” approach does not work, regulators will move on to more prescriptive measures, such as targets or quotas.

But before this happens, we could learn from the Catalyst experience by asking whether this will really work, and if not, what are we missing?

There is a better way to improve gender equity and perhaps it starts with Hock’s advice.