Why Canada Needs an “Old Girls’ Club”

Gender parity is still a long way off in our nation’s boardrooms. KPMG Chief Inclusion Officer Mary Lou Maher is on a mission to change that

Mary Lou Maher, KPMG in Canada's chief inclusion officer

Mary Lou Maher, chief inclusion officer, KPMG in Canada. (KPMG)

When Justin Trudeau appointed women to half of the positions in his first cabinet, crusaders for gender equality were elated. But the much-publicized move has yet to spark similar parity in corporate Canada; according to research by The 30% Club—an advocacy group devoted to improving gender balance in corporations—just over 20% of board-level roles in Canada are held by women.

That’s a number Mary Lou Maher is working to change. A veteran of KPMG in Canada—her current job titles are business unit leader, GTA audit and chief inclusion officer—she is fiercely committed to getting more women on the boards of Bay Street (and beyond). Maher spoke with us about why gender parity is so important in Canada’s boardrooms, what it will take to make it happen and the role an “Old Girls’ Club” will play in the process.

You’ve held various roles in your tenure at KPMG. What exactly is a “chief inclusion officer,” and why is it important to you to have this title now?

I have been very focused on diversity through my whole career; it’s an issue I’ve always been very passionate about, both as a woman and as a gay woman. We wanted to make a statement both within the firm, and to the marketplace, that we’re serious about it. One of the ways to do that was to take a partner and put them in charge of this. So we set up a council that [KPMG in Canada CEO] Bill Thomas and I co-chair.

When we launched it my title was “chief diversity officer.” About six months into it I went to Bill and said “this doesn’t capture what we want to do.” That’s because I’ve always thought it’s one thing to hire for diversity, but you have to keep [people] in the firm, too. So that’s where the word “inclusion” comes in.

I hope it isn’t overly simplistic to ask: Why is it important for boards to include representation from diverse demographics?

Diversity, for both boards and senior teams, is critical for achieving good results. What I mean by that is you need to invite unique experiences and perspectives to the table so that it’s not just the same ideas all the time. When you add women, or visible minorities, or persons with disabilities, it changes the conversations. As businesspeople, we are are losing innovation if we don’t have access to those diverse and different ideas.

So if it’s good business, why do you think the percentage of women in board-level roles remains so low?

I think change is slow. It seems painfully slow; we’ve been talking about this for over a decade. But we’re watching the numbers creep up each year, and at least the numbers are going in the right direction.

How much of it has to do with the depth of the talent pool? Companies always claim to be choosing the best person for the job, but I wonder if you find it as odd as I do that in 80% of cases, that person for the job happens to be a man.

Well, if you want to talk about talent [as the key criterion], but you’re not drawing from 50% of the population, then you’re not getting the best candidates. I honestly do believe that there are lots of board-ready female candidates out there. I think they need to be brought forward onto the slate, and for that to happen requires disrupting the normal process.

The [Ontario Securities Commision-led] “comply or explain” strategy has helped do that. The regulator has asked for members of corporate Canada to create a diversity policy on how they recruit board members and senior members of their management team, and then, if they don’t have a woman on their board, they need to explain why. What that has done is created the discussions at boardroom tables, which is very important. I don’t think we’ve seen the full results of that regulation just yet, but I think it is disrupting the process.

What advice would you have for executives who struggle to find those good female candidates?

I would challenge those individuals is to call me. I’ll find excellent candidates; I know lots of them.

Would you be in favour of a quota system that mandates corporations to have a certain percentage of female board members?

I am not for targets, to be clear. But what I am for is for equal representation on the slate of board candidates that is chosen from. That’s a big difference [from a quota system]. What we want is a fair playing ground, not to get a seat just because of our gender. And if we have fair representation on the board slate opportunities, I think women will get their fair share.

And what about candidates themselves? What can women do to make themselves more visible as potential board members?

The Canadian Board Diversity Council has its Diversity 50 [a database of diverse board candidates]. They could get on that. Networking always helps. For the younger people, I would suggest getting not-for-profit board experience—not just sitting at the table, but in leadership roles—because the issues may be different, but the governance experience is very similar, and I think that’s very powerful.

I do actually think that women need to help women. There’s lots of chatter out there now that we need to start an “Old Girls’ Network” to get more women considered for more board positions. If we do that, they’ll earn their seat at the table.