How human resources can move the needle and get more women on corporate boards

We need to be paying more attention to the skill sets of board candidates
By Suanne Nielsen
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/27/2017

That there’s a desperate need for more women on corporate boards has been established beyond doubt.

But change has happened. The World Economic Forum recently released its annual Global Gender Gap report. Canada ranks 16 out of 144 countries. There has been slight improvement on gender parity not just in the political empowerment sub-index, but also on the equality of wage.

And women directors in TSX-listed companies have grown from 12 per cent in 2015 to 14.5 per cent in 2017, according to Osler Law’s 2017 Diversity Disclosure Practices.

These changes, however, are glacial and, increasingly, executives are demanding new laws to quicken their pace. While I’m not in favour of legislated mandates, I must agree with Cindy Gordon, CEO of SalesChoice, when she says that to move the needle significantly, force needs to be applied in the form of legislation.

Unfortunately, if compliance is not mandated, change for women to be on tech boards, and other corporate boards, for that matter, will be sluggish. The reported results clearly demonstrate this.

At Foresters, 30 per cent of our board are women and another 30 per cent of our executive leadership team are women, as well. Why did that happen? It happened with the conscious and deliberate efforts of our nominating committee — specifically, our former board chair and CEO who mandated that more women candidates be considered when hiring for board positions.

HR has a significant role to play in determining the rate at which this change happens. Beyond ticking boxes on their diversity checklists, HR managers should be ensuring that executive and board search criteria go beyond seniority in titles, to include expertise in functional capabilities too.

For example, if board candidacy is restricted to only those who have prior C-suite experience with CEO or COO titles, that alone would limit the number of women who could apply. What’s needed is a range of selection criteria to find the ideal members, and a willingness to substitute legacy criteria.

Increased attention needs to be paid to the skill sets of board candidates, ensuring that they have actuarial or legal experience. HR should be looking for an organizational culture fit. Board candidates who display credibility as collaborative leaders, are invested in developing talent and put the organization’s growth ahead of their own career trajectory should be favoured. In these areas, research has shown women to be more collaborative and focused on the development of the greater good, beyond their own.

Women bring a unique perspective to boards. They think more laterally and logically than men, are more multi-dimensional in problem-solving, and can multi-task better. An astute female board member at Foresters attested to this in my conversation with her on the topic. In her experience, women tend to follow the rules better, and don’t look for ways to skirt them. People who end up getting into murky corporate waters are, nine times out of 10, men. And, women generally have less professional ego and personal agenda invested in the workplace. They focus on team results.

If the hiring criteria were flipped to seek those who put the enterprise ahead of themselves, and hold high ethical standards, chances are you’ll attract more capable women than men.

From the standpoint of experience, if there are two groups of board candidates — men and women — and one available position, inherently, you want to fill the position with the cream of the crop from both. So, why dig deep down into the male bucket when the top talent in the female bucket is ready for picking?

More women are making decisions about life insurance and financial investments. Typically, women are the ones to make more consumer and retail buying decisions so, logically, if you want your organization to reflect your customer demographic, you would want the people at the top of your organization, meaning the board and executive team, to reflect that customer demographic.

More boards regard HR and compensation expertise as crucial requirements. Therefore, it’s imperative to find board candidates who have considerable experience in HR, talent management and compensation expertise. Fifty per cent of HR officers at the top 100 corporate employers are women, according to the United States Department of Labor. If that’s the case, boards will naturally attract more female candidates.

In a previous blog, I wrote about leveraging disruptive talent. That’s another highly sought-after skill set that women bring more readily to the table. To me, it’s a matter of doing the simple math.

Suanne Nielsen is president of the Strategic Capability Network and senior vice-president and chief talent officer at Foresters in Toronto. For more information about the SCNetwork, visit

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