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Mid adult Asian businesswoman talks with colleagues during weekly meeting

Lack of sponsorship a key hurdle in more women joining boards

A new study uncovers the experiences of Canadian women trying to become corporate board members

Mid adult Asian businesswoman talks with colleagues during weekly meetingResearch has shown that diverse boards make better decisions and prove to be more successful (Getty Images/ SDI Productions)

Progress has been made in the diversity of board composition in Canada since mandatory disclosure rules were implemented for federally incorporated public companies in 2015. But a new study by Mount Royal University and the DirectHer Network found that 20 per cent of disclosing organizations still had no women or gender diverse individuals on their boards.

We spoke with the lead author of the 2023 Industry Report, Dr Rachael Pettigrew, an associate professor at Mount Royal University. She will be leading the Pathways to Board Work for Women session at CPA Canada’s virtual ESG Symposium, May 30-31, 2023.

CPA CANADA: How did the project come to be, and what, for you, were its most surprising results?
Rachael Pettigrew (RP): In the summer of 2021, I was introduced to Chantel Cabaj, a lawyer and Founder and President of a DirectHer Network, a Calgary-based not-for-profit that provides governance training to women and gender diverse people. Chantel and I shared a keen interest in the importance of diverse representation in leadership, including boards. Founded in 2019, DirectHer and Chantel have generated a community of thousands of women across Canada who are in pursuit of board opportunities in all sectors and board types.

As an associate professor in Mount Royal University’s Bissett School of Business, I research topics related to gender in the workforce. Given our backgrounds, we formed a strong research partnership aiming to explore the aspirations, experiences and barriers experienced by women and gender diverse people in board governance, with intentional consideration for those entering the board pipeline, as there is little research on this group. With the support of a SSHRC Partnership Engage Grant and an amazing student research assistant, Quinn Pelland, we conducted a survey and focus groups in 2022 and wrote a publicly accessible report for key stakeholders. We are thrilled to present our early findings to CPA Canada at its upcoming ESG conference.

CPA CANADA: What can organizations do to create a better pipeline for women to join their boards? Are they incentivized to diversify at the top?
RP: Previous research has shown that diverse boards make better decisions and prove to be more successful, though moving beyond the business case to ensuring our decision-making bodies reflect the diversity of our population is also essential. What our study highlights is the depth of talent available and how eager participants are to serve on all types of boards (e.g., for-profit, not-for-profit, and government).

Our preliminary findings report makes several key suggestions for boards, including reviewing their recruitment strategy and the importance of moving beyond personal networks that are often filled with people similar to ourselves. Boards should cast an intentionally wide net to counter this. This may include developing relationships with board listing services/platforms, recruiting agencies, professional associations and diverse community groups to intentionally expand awareness around your board opportunities. However, in doing so, the board should be careful to honour the time and effort these organizations have taken to develop their networks.

CPA CANADA: The highest proportion of women participating in board work in Canada is at not-for-profit organizations, while the lowest is in for-profit organizations. Why is this?
RP: Our research found three groups of candidates—those who had board ambitions but had not yet served on a board, those who were solely interested in sharing their knowledge and experience to support a NFP they cared about, and those that were on a strategic pathway to escalating board size and responsibility, with a final aim for a for-profit, paid board position.

NFP boards often have fewer barriers to entry, are more accessible, and rely less on sponsorship, holding senior leader positions or special training. For those on the strategic pathway, they often begin in a small NFP to gain experience and then move to a larger NFP, then a government board, to a smaller for-profit board and so on.

Participants in our research perceived barriers increasing as they move along this pathway. For example, sponsorship (i.e., someone leveraging their personal/professional network to put your name forward for an opportunity), or lack thereof, was a key barrier for all boards, with 46 per cent identifying this as a barrier for not-for-profit boards, 59 per cent for government boards, and 71.5 per cent for profit boards. Access to opportunities, access to networks needed, past board experience\ and training were also considered barriers. However, it should be noted that those who have completed training were much more likely to be serving on a board.

CPA CANADA: Though the majority of participants reported feeling competent and prepared for board work, and 70 per cent of them had some previous board experience, about half cited lack of confidence as a barrier. What reason did they give for this lack of confidence?
RP: The sample of women and gender diverse people in this study are extremely successful and highly educated, but they have likely been receiving messaging about what an ideal board member looks like, and sometimes they don’t perceive themselves as a fit. Some participants felt boards were only interested in lawyers and accountants, while others, especially those targeting for-profit boards, felt that job title or position (being a CEO or SVP) was the key qualification for board work. For others, this concern was rooted in not seeing representation of people like themselves holding board positions, so board work felt unattainable.

As previously mentioned, the real and perceived barriers for for-profit boards are much higher than for NFP boards and confidence levels are no different, as 28.7 per cent of the sample felt confidence was a barrier for NFP boards, while 46.6 per cent felt this was a barrier with for-profit boards. Confidence is not solely an internal or intrinsic quality—rather, it is impacted by external realities, including lack of representation.

Confidence is also largely impacted by qualification expectations, with women and gender diverse people more likely to forgo applying for positions where they don’t feel they meet all of the qualifications. Therefore, boards should mitigate this by providing a clear description of who they are targeting for board work, recognizing applicants may hold inaccurate assumptions around required career stage, job title and profession.


Find out why it’s important to bring more diversity into your boardroom, how having more women in c-suite roles boosts your bottom line, and how women can find their voice as leaders. Plus, make sure to sign up for CPA Canada’s ESG symposium, May 30-31, 2023.