Women’s representation on boards: understanding the path to leadership

By: Maria Giammarco, Susan Black

This Op-Ed was originally published by Sixth Estate on March 11, 2020. It is written by Dr. Maria Giammarco, Senior Research Associate and Dr. Susan Black, President and CEO, The Conference Board of Canada.

It comes as no surprise that women, racialized peoples, and other equity groups are underrepresented in leadership positions in Canada—including corporate board seats. These are some of the most powerful positions in the world, yet they’re predominantly held by white men.

The importance of equitable and diverse leadership, though, also comes as no surprise. Diversity makes good business sense: evidence suggests diverse teams are more agile and innovative, and they bring a wider range of valuable experiences, perceptions, and considerations to the table.
Our social and political climate also demands we do better. This is reflected in part by a growing focus from corporations and their shareholders on social responsibility and sustainable development. It’s simply the right thing to do. But these representation disparities suggest we’re failing to foster inclusive environments where all people have the opportunity to rise to the top.

When it comes to leadership gaps, Canadian decision-makers have zeroed in on the need to increase women’s representation on boards. While this is one specific area of focus within the larger landscape of diversity and inclusion, it’s an important step towards achieving diverse representation and fostering more inclusive workplaces. 

In 2014, Status of Women Canada released their report Good for Business: A Plan to Promote More Women on Canadian Boards that laid out aspirational goals for Canadian business and public sectors: it set a national target of 30 per cent of women on boards by 2019.

Research shows that having at least 3 women on a team deals with challenges of tokenism and discriminatory treatment and spurs the hiring of more women moving forward. Not to mention, this target was set when women’s representation on boards across Canada sat at about 10 per cent.

How this objective would be operationalized was less clear, but later that year, the Canadian Securities Administrators (an umbrella organization of Canada’s provincial and territorial securities regulators that works with them to improve and harmonize market regulation) implemented “comply or explain” disclosure requirements for women’s representation on corporate boards.

All TSX non-venture companies in participating jurisdictions are required to report annually on information like the proportion of women on their boards or in executive leadership positions. Companies are also asked to disclose the efforts (e.g., diversity policies and/targets) they have undertaken to increase representation. If they don’t comply with the disclosure requirements, they must explain why. The idea is that transparency around a company’s diversity efforts -or lack thereof- will act as a social accountability mechanism and a catalyst for behaviour change.

Since then, there has since been an increase of women in leadership roles in recent years. The largest corporations in Canada— the TSX60—have achieved 30% women on boards with industries like banking and professional services leading the charge.

However, overall progress has moved at a glacial pace and we didn’t hit our 2019 target. Representation among all TSX companies still sits at around 18 per cent, and about a quarter of boards have no women at all. Smaller organizations and male dominated industries like mining and oil and gas are lagging the most.

The lack of progress isn’t necessarily driven by a lack of effort. We simply know very little about the drivers of change. Beyond descriptions of year by year changes in women’s representation on boards, we lack robust evidence on what works and what factors matter most when it comes to disclosure. If we can’t answer this, then we don’t know—and can’t advocate for—the best strategies for accelerating change.

These questions are more critical now than ever. Canada is now the first country to focus on board representation beyond women—disclosure requirements now apply to all employment equity groups (women, Indigenous peoples, racialized peoples, and persons with disabilities) for all federally regulated corporations through amendments to the Business Corporations Act.

Canada is both a leader and a test case in the use of diversity legislation beyond women. As leaders, it’s more important than ever to understand whether and how disclosure requirements affect representation of historically underrepresented groups—starting with women.

At The Conference Board of Canada, we recently launched an important and unique study that aims to fill this knowledge gap in Canada. All on Board—Turning Evidence into Action for Women’s Leadership examines regulation as a driver of change for women’s representation on boards. Specifically, the research will look at the effectiveness of the 2014 Canadian Securities Administrators “comply or explain” disclosure requirement for women’s representation on corporate boards between 2015–19.

The comply or explain approach is a nudge in the right direction, but the path to leadership and a seat at the board table is a complex journey. To see real change, individuals and organizations must be intentional in their efforts to increase representation of women and other equity groups in leadership throughout the career ladder. It’s also very much about fostering inclusive workplaces where diverse people feel welcome and supported and can truly thrive. It’s about recognizing the biases that exist in corporate structure, operations, and individual human behaviour and being accountable for the changes that need to happen at these levels.

This research will produce the evidence needed to anchor to conversations on the policies and practices that impact real change. It will also provide a set of methodologies that can answer similar questions on related policies, like the recent amendments to the Business Corporations Act. It’s important to know whether different policies and regulations make a real difference in giving a voice to more people of different backgrounds and identities. This project is an opportunity to look at how behaviour—whether people’s behaviour or organizational behaviour—can change for the better.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD) and Women’s History Month, we are looking forward to being on Before the Bell on The Sixth Estate and to joining the panel Each for Equal. We will discuss the lasting impact of IWD and other initiatives on diversity and gender equity, including on women’s representation in leadership positions.