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Women still face challenges to have their chance at the table

By Angela Holtham

The business world is a much different place today than it was a few decades ago. When I set out to university in the 1970s to study math and computer science, an adviser told me not to take physics, as it would be unlikely for me to do well in the class and it wouldn’t serve any use to me in the professional world.

Fast-forward to my first job out of college: I was employed at a lawn mower manufacturing company in the sales office where I was told outright by my male colleagues that I was to stick to order processing and stay away from customer service. I could not speak to customers over the phone because they would be insulted communicating to a woman in this industry.

Suffice to say, I didn’t take the advice of my university advisor nor my former colleagues. Today, I serve on the corporate boards of publicly traded, not-for profit and government sector organizations, and was recently appointed to the board of the newly public Jamieson Wellness Inc. Throughout my education and career, I have been disinclined to listen to those who told me “no” because I am a woman. I am proud to be one of the many women in the Canadian workforce positively impacting workplace culture by earning positions in the C-suite and at the board table. That said, there is still much work to be done.

Current research indicates that companies with the most women board directors have a 26 per cent higher return on invested capital (ROIC). Other benefits linked to having greater numbers of women on corporate boards include a more inclusive culture and employee engagement, greater financial performance and greater productivity.

Why, then, does current research also indicate a low level of female representation on corporate boards and in leadership positions? For example, out of the 500 chief executives at Fortune 500 companies, only 32 are women. Currently, boards in Canada do not reflect the country’s diversity. In 2016, women held 21.6 per cent of FP500 company board seats in the country, and of the 677 companies on the Toronto Stock Exchange, 45 per cent had zero women.

Unfortunately, adoption levels could be so low for a number of simple reasons. First, people inherently tend to hire people who think like they do. Board members are frequently responsible for picking their own replacements, so they tend to replace with likeminded and similar individuals. There is tradition, comfort and existing connections through personal and work history for these individuals. There’s also a misguided sentiment that qualified women are hard to find for board seats. Additionally, many boards may be hesitant to give women their first board seat experience. Even when qualified women are identified and in the running, they can lose out if they have no previous board experience, further contributing to the cycle. Lastly, people often remain on board seats for 10 years or more, and diversity wasn’t as much of a focus for businesses 10 years ago.

Companies with women on boards do well because having women in the boardroom forces directors to examine different angles when it comes to problem solving.

I believe companies with women on boards do well because having women in the boardroom forces directors to examine different angles when it comes to problem solving. Boards with women do better because they examine and analyze problems and solutions from more than one perspective. Companies that fail are often failing because they don’t see how the world is evolving. Additionally, the fact that a company is open to change by having females on the board suggests that they may be inherently more progressive in other ways. My personal experience also indicates that the more diverse the background of a board, the more territory you cover to ensure you don’t have any blind spots.

With this in mind, here are a few approaches that you can take if you’re looking to strengthen your board or advance your career, and that companies can adopt to help make it happen:

Business leaders and board members must make a concerted effort to ensure that women have a fair and equal path to ascend to positions at the top. This can come in the form of mentoring programs that connect young professionals with established professionals in an effort to facilitate and encourage the younger worker’s growth. Executive sponsorship is also critical. When it comes time for a woman to be recommended for a new role or stretch assignment, executive support can be lacking. Sponsorship should be an expectation and recognized as an important part of the organization’s leadership plans. Formal career mapping with development plans, promotions and networking opportunities can also lend to a young female professional’s success. Further, for those boards that do appoint women to their first board seat, be sure to provide coaching and support to set her up for success.

Know who your customer is and make informed business decisions based on who is opening their wallet. Women drive 70 to 80 per cent of all consumer purchasing, according to Forbes.

Utilize resources to connect with the most qualified women. The Institute of Corporate Directors has a database of qualified female professionals, and the organization offers additional benefits like training and professional guidance. Companies can also be ICD members.

For professional women, participate actively in professional associations such as CPA Ontario, Catalyst Canada, Institute of Corporate Directors and the Canadian Association of Women. Many industries have their own organizations that can help you develop your leadership skills such as Executives and Entrepreneurs and Women in Biz Network. Networking not only affords you great connections, it helps keep you aware of what is happening at other companies and in any given industry on the whole.

Further, invest in yourself and make sure you have all the qualifications you need. This will allow you to be confident that you have the necessary background to ensure you are on a level playing field with any other candidates that may be up for a role.

Change the board model. Think critically about why boards are made up of many likeminded people in the same age group. Find ways to recruit more diverse professionals – not just by gender, but by age and ethnicity as well.

Some governing bodies are taking notice of the positive changes that women can have in leadership positions and on boards. For example, the Ontario Securities Commission has rules under National Instrument 58-101 Disclosure of Corporate Governance Practices, which require non-venture issuers to disclose certain information regarding women on boards and in executive officer positions. We’re also seeing this topic making more and more news headlines these days, including a group of institutional investors calling for boards and executive teams of S&P/TSX composite index companies to be 30 per cent female by 2022.

We still have a lot of progress to make, but with commitment and collaboration from individuals and corporations, we can create positive change for the organizations we’re part of, and for the women that will someday lead them. 

Angela Holtham has more than 40 years of experience on boards and in supporting finance functions, operations, intellectual property portfolio management and mergers and acquisitions across various roles within the health and wellness and consumer products industries. She currently serves on the Board of Directors of Jamieson Wellness, Oncolytics Biotech, Inc., Ontario Financing Authority and Compute Canada.

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