To get more women on corporate boards tomorrow, mentor them today

A federal initiative to cultivate the next generation of women directors is floundering because leaders won’t step up

Woman standing alone in office

(Thomas Barwick/Getty)

Are Canadian business leaders failing women in the workplace? Recent signs aren’t encouraging. A federal government initiative aimed at signing up 5,000 “champions” of women is falling far short of its goal. And a recent review of the policies of companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange shows that about 50% haven’t bothered to develop guidelines to ensure gender diversity on their corporate boards—despite pressure from the Ontario Securities Commission to do so.

“We’re seeing a real bifurcation in Corporate Canada between those who get the business case for advancing women and those who don’t think it’s important,” says Jennifer Reynolds, CEO of Women in Capital Markets. “And from the looks of things, the ones who don’t think it’s important don’t intend to do anything about it. We really need to get this other half on side.”

The OSC’s new rules for TSX-listed companies require them to develop plans for board diversity—or explain why they haven’t done so. Industry observers believed that the comply-or-explain policy would push boards to set targets or implement other proactive policies. But a review of company policies indicates that only 13% have set targets for female representation. And many of the companies without policies said they choose to make appointments based on merit, not gender—despite mounting research that demonstrates a strong business case for more women on boards.

“It’s a real slap to the OSC,” says Reynolds. “But that’s the reality of where we’re at. We need everybody to get up and make a stand on this. We need pressure from the federal government and from the OSC and from business leaders.”

But the federal government is facing its own lack of support from Canadian executives. In April, Status of Women minister Kellie Leitch launched an ambitious program called It Starts With One and asked leaders to pledge to mentor and actively promote a working woman. (Research suggests that 88% of entrepreneurs with mentors survive in business, compared with a failure rate of about 50% for those without a mentor.) At a kickoff event on Bay Street, Leitch urged executives and managers to make a commitment to participate—and then do something else. “Pick up the phone,” she said, and call five friends and ask them to get involved too. A concerted, countrywide effort could help “move the needle” for thousands of working women, she said. “It will tangibly make a difference.”

But so far, they haven’t. Leitch said the campaign aimed to reach its goal by end of June, but a spokesman contacted late last week said the number of pledges was nowhere near 5,000. “We’ve just recently begun new outreach mechanisms and they’re working, but we’re still short of the goal.”