Empty chairs at a table with paper, pens, water, and microphones

Aiming for the top : The push for an inclusive corporate Canada


By: Maria Giammarco, Susan Black

The political moment unfolding now is an opportunity to take transformative action against systemic racism and discrimination. How do we ensure that this moment becomes more than, well, a moment?

From community streets to corporate boardrooms, no place of work or leisure is immune to change—and change is long overdue. But to enact it, we must persistently push for inclusive work cultures and equitable opportunities for employment and leadership. To achieve real, lasting progress we still need to figure out how to effectively implement and sustain the strategies and solutions that move us from good intentions to meaningful transformation.

One of the ways exclusion persists for Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) is in the form of employment and wage gaps. They are significantly underrepresented in senior leadership and entrepreneur roles, and overrepresented in precarious, entry-level positions—especially BIPOC women, who also bear the burden of disproportionately high levels of discrimination. The emotional burden of overcoming the impacts of this experience prevents BIPOC women from achieving their full potential.

To transform the status quo, we need to change who’s at the top—who calls the shots in our places of work and our systems of political power. Underrepresented voices shouldn’t just be at the table, we need to see them at the head. When diverse voices and experiences are in leadership roles and able to set policies and reshape cultures, new opportunities emerge to deconstruct and rebuild organizations. And our ways of working and living can become truly inclusive.

This isn’t a new idea. And there’s an abundance of evidence to support the positive impact of diverse leadership on employee well-being, workplace cultures, and organizational success. But how do we get there?

Our work at the Conference Board of Canada is focusing on the barriers and enablers of pathways to leadership for women –including women’s representation on boards of directors, i.e. one of the ways the evidence shows that we can disrupt the status quo.

After years of advocacy and mentorship, as well as shifts in norms and policies, we’ve seen some progress—for white women. The largest private companies in Canada have achieved 30 per cent representation of women on their boards—the oft cited threshold for enabling a change in boardroom culture. Yet only about six per cent of board seats are held by BIPOC people, and less than one per cent are held by Black directors. The same story rings true for senior executive roles.

Our latest workplace inclusion project focuses on a regulation designed to accelerate the representation of women on corporate boards. This regulation requires all companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange to publicly report on the number of women on their boards and any efforts they’re taking to increase that number. If a company chooses not to disclose this information or engage in these efforts, they must explain why.

Commonly referred to as “comply or explain,” the idea is that transparency will act as a motivator to get companies moving towards greater board diversity. But questions remain as to whether a comply or explain approach effectively accelerates change. This is a challenge that we’ve set out to explore, understand and answer.

Another challenge: within the existing regulations, “women” are considered one broad category. No further information is available on whether women appointed to boards represent other communities such as Indigenous or persons of colour. This itself highlights a critical opportunity to become more sophisticated about intersectionality in gender diversity and inclusion efforts – especially for vastly underrepresented groups like BIPOC women. That being said, we also contend that a deeper understanding of the comply or explain approach is a necessary place to start if we want to change who’s at the top.

The end goal of our research is to figure out what’s working, what’s not, and continue to benchmark progress. We aspire to figure out how to scale what works across sectors and equity groups and apply lessons learned from our women-first lens to ongoing efforts that focus on representation and inclusion of non-white women and other equity groups.

Recent social movements have exposed the limitations of earlier attempts to improve workplace inclusion and diverse leadership. They’ve also opened a window of opportunity. The strides we’re making to evaluate approaches, like comply or explain, will hopefully help us to speed up change and ensure this important moment doesn’t go to waste.