A chance for change

When you look at the list of appointees on the advisory council named yesterday to promote the participation of women on public and private corporate boards, you ask: Why only 23 members?

Couldn’t the federal government have found one more person to make it an even two dozen? Ottawa certainly has taken its time to assemble what has turned out to be the world’s largest committee.┬áThe names of the appointees are familiar. They’re all fine folks. But maybe we shouldn’t expect too much. The three-point mandate contains such phrases as “provide advice,” “suggest how,” and “make recommendations.” Not exactly an action-packed agenda.

Only 10 percent of directors of Canadian companies are women, an inexplicably low level of involvement that hasn’t changed much in ten years. Nor has there been much improvement for women in executive management. The only place where women hold a majority is on this pink-ribbon committee where they outnumber men 16-7.

Catalyst, an international business women’s advocacy group and one of three, count ’em three, advisory groups advising the advisors, has called for the proportion of women on boards to be 25 percent by 2017. That strikes me as a reasonable goal. But business pushes back. A Compass poll found that 96 percent of all Chief Executive Officers opposed the idea of what they see as quotas. The Big Five Banks have also resisted a proposal from a Quebec-based shareholders’ rights groups for equal representation by men and women on their boards by 2022.

The answer to this conundrum lies readily at hand. Norway, France, Belgium and other European nations have mandated that female directors must comprise as much as 40 percent of boards. In Britain, companies have been told to voluntarily increase the proportion to 25 percent by 2015 or the government will take mandatory action.

This committee may be too big to devise such excellent answers. It will more likely recommend some lowest-common-denominator notion such as appoint more women or explain why. Such an approach will mean corporate annual reports are filled with wool about the company’s inability to find qualified women and more years will have been lost. By the time the committee reports this fall and the government responds, it will be two years since the idea of a panel was announced in March 2012.

Business in Canada must cease being like those tree houses built by young boys. When girls climbed up they’d find a sign saying, “No wymmen allowed.” Let’s take down the sign. Forever.

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