Federal government finally gets ‘on board’ (Guest Commentary)

Advisory council to promote women as corporate directors surprising, but welcome

When Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty, while delivering the budget, announced the federal government was going to create an advisory council to promote women as corporate directors, I was floored.

After working for the past six years at Women On Board, a Vancouver-based not-for-profit agency, to raise awareness about the lack of women in Canada’s corporate boardrooms, build the talent pool and profile the women who are qualified to serve on corporate boards, I’ve had my ear bent toward Ottawa, listening for the tiniest of peeps.

Instead, I heard about the governments of Britain, Belgium, Norway, France, Australia, Denmark and Germany and the various positions they were adopting to increase the number of women in their boardrooms.

The issue simply didn’t seem to be a priority for Ottawa. And then the announcement came — sometimes you really do get what you wish for.

The government’s initiative to promote women as corporate directors is commendable and Women On Board has offered its support to Rona Ambrose, minister for status of women, who is responsible for creating the council.

We also invited Ambrose and the council to use Women On Board’s network which, after five years of running the Women On Board Mentoring Program, is comprised of some of Canada’s most accomplished women executives.

In a way, the timing of the government’s initiative couldn’t be better, given the upcoming launch of WomenOnBoard Source, an online resource for boards of directors to help them identify and connect with qualified corporate director candidates. The women featured in the listing are all part of our mentoring program that matches a select group of senior executive women with board chairs and CEOs from leading Canadian companies for a period of two years.

The program has been successful in preparing women to serve on boards, facilitating appointments and forging connections between women and corporate boards and their members.

Who should sit on the council?

While we know the council will be drawn from private and public sector leaders, the council should consist of the heads of business in Canada, specifically highly experienced corporate directors and CEOs who have the power to create change at their own organizations and to influence other corporations to change.

The council members, too, will have to be truly committed to and understand the value of having more women on corporate boards. This might seem obvious but it’s very important to have real substance behind individual involvement.

For the council to be effective, it needs to understand a lack of women on corporate boards is a business issue, not a women’s issue. This will be critical to its ability to influence corporate leaders and board members, most of whom are men. Any talk about appointing women to boards for reasons related to equality, affirmative action or the like will, rightly or wrongly, likely fall on deaf ears.

The council should also consider a broad range of practical and concrete actions that will lead to real results. There are many moves the council might consider. All one has to do is read Lord Mervyn Davies’ review Women on Boards – February 2011 for his 10 recommendations, one of which is being adopted in the United Kingdom on Oct. 1, 2012 — amendments to the U.K. Corporate Governance Code requiring companies to report on the diversity of their boards.

I would also urge the council to seek advice from the people who have been working on this issue in Canada and who understand what is at the core of the lack of women on corporate boards, and can suggest effective approaches. We believe strongly in the importance of dialogue, engagement and collaboration among organizations working on this issue — business leaders and aspiring female board members.

Patrick O’Callaghan, chair of Women On Board, recently estimated that it would take about 45 years to reach 25 per cent women directors on boards at the current rate of change. This is based on findings in Corporate Board Governance and Director Compensation in Canada – A Review of 2011, published annually by Korn/Ferry International and Patrick O’Callaghan and Associates.

This year’s report says women hold just 10 per cent of board directorships of Canada’s largest 300 public companies and almost one-half have no women on their boards.

But now, things have changed. With the federal government “on board,” we are hopeful we can accelerate the pace of change, facilitate female board appointments and, ultimately, build better boards.

Thea Miller is the managing director of Women On Board, a Vancouver-based not-for-profit society that promotes the appointment of women to corporate boards in Canada. She can be reached at info@womenonboard.ca or visit www.womenonboard.ca for more information.

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