Business

Equality in the boardroom? Not any time soon, says Canadian Chamber of Commerce

Women are a minority in Canadian boardrooms and the “glacial” pace of progress means it could take decades to reach gender parity, according to a report released this week by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

“Our daughters, our granddaughters, would not see a world where they are ultimately equitable … and that’s just not reasonable when you think about it in 2024,” said senior research director Marwa Abdou, lead author of the report.

Abdou said women have made gains in overall employment, making up 48 per cent of the workforce. But many never reach the most senior ranks — the most recent data shows just 21 per cent of board directors were women in 2020, up just slightly from 18 per cent in 2016.

“The importance of boards here is that there are trickle down effects of these low representation numbers on how management looks in the rest of the company.”

The report analyzed Statistics Canada data on publicly-traded corporations.

WATCH | Why these women are on a mission to balance boardrooms

Women still seriously underrepresented in Canada’s boardrooms

While people around the world celebrate International Women’s Day, the latest Canadian Chamber of Commerce data shows the country is falling behind peer countries when it comes to women who sit on company boards and in senior management positions.

Pulling women across the pipeline

The chamber pointed to outdated corporate culture as well as poor recruitment and retention practices as reasons for why women often struggle to move beyond middle management to top jobs like board director.

Canada’s share of female managers is 35.6 per cent, behind almost half of all Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. Countries that have better representation include Mexico (38.9 per cent), the U.S. (41 per cent) and Latvia (45.9 per cent).

“It’s pulling women across the pipeline, and recognizing that when they do leave for maternity leave, or for other purposes,… that doesn’t negate the skills that they bring forward, their ability to progress if they’re actually invested in properly,” said Abdou.

She said if companies want to improve their balance in the boardroom, they should take steps from tracking hiring and promotions to offering opportunities for upskilling and flexible work.

“Making sure that we’re holding corporations and other stakeholders accountable … is going to be really quite a game changer.”

Empowering the next generation

Despite the findings, Deborah Rosati said she’s optimistic. She founded Women Get on Board, an organization that offers networking and mentoring programs.

“We’re about helping women be more confident and have more courage to lead and serve on corporate boards,” she said, noting that bringing more women into the fold is good for business.

“There’s data to prove that the more diverse your board is, the better the decision making.” For example, a 2016 study showed gender diversity is related positively to company performance.

Rosati gathered with hundreds of other women (and a handful of men) on Friday to mark International Women’s Day at an event to discuss how to boost women in industries that are traditionally dominated by men.

Chantal Gosselin, a director at four mining companies, said for her it had been challenging over the years to break beliefs that women couldn’t advance in the mining industry. She encouraged women just starting their journeys to get on the board of a non-profit for the experience.

“It’s still something that we need to work hard on, and that I’m encouraging at the board level.”

Kiwana Scott said she'd like to see faster progress to get women on corporate boards.
Kiwana Scott said she’d like to see faster progress to get women on corporate boards. (Shawn Benjamin/CBC)

Europe has rules

Some lawmakers haven’t waited for businesses to act. In 2022, the European Union passed a law that large public companies must ensure that women make up 40 per cent of board members. Firms that don’t meet this goal could face fines.

Roberta Metsola, president of the European Parliament, said at the time that she thought it was telling that the negotiations took more than a decade to complete. “We have managed to at least put a proper crack in the glass ceiling.”

In Canada, federally-incorporated public companies have been required to disclose the number of women on their boards since 2015, though there are no mandatory targets.

Kiwana Scott, who works in customer service at a not-for-profit organization, said she’d like to see faster progress in this country, and hopes one day she’ll get her own seat at the table.

“Seeing women in those positions kind of drives me and shows me that I can make it there too.”

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