In the boardroom — especially in the private sector — it’s still largely a man’s world. Yet times are changing as the number of women sitting on the governing bodies of organizations continues to rise, with Toronto institutions that play a vital role in city life helping to lead the way.
“Like all business and societal-based organizations, there’s empirical evidence that diverse boards equal improved results. Organizations of all types benefit from a variety of viewpoints and ideas, especially public organizations which serve wide and diverse audiences,” said Kate Marshall, who just completed four years as chair of Heritage Toronto, where 52.2 per cent of the board is female.
“Women of all ages, ethnicity, creeds and experiences can help organizations think about old and new problems and challenges in new ways. Overall, women are proven to be more empathetic and collaborative in their approach to problem-solving and business,” Marshall added.
The Star identified 25 Toronto groups and organizations that are central to city life — from the Toronto Transit Commission and the police services board to the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health — and found a much more promising picture when it comes to women on boards.
Of the 25 boards surveyed — covering everything from the arts to science to education to health to sports but by no means an exhaustive list — women comprised an average of 40.1 per cent of board positions, with the non-profit Toronto Environmental Alliance highest at 66.7 per cent, followed closely by the Royal Ontario Museum at 63.2 per cent.
The sole holdout among the 25: MLSE, a private corporation jointly owned by Rogers Communications, BCE Inc. and sports mogul Larry Tanenbaum, has an eight-member board comprised entirely of men. But that is expected to change for the group that owns the city’s top four sports franchises including the Leafs and Raptors, with the imminent appointment of Melinda Rogers, daughter of the late Ted Rogers and deputy chair of Rogers Communications, to the board.
In 17 of the 25 boards, all director positions were volunteer positions and unpaid. In 15 of those organizations, positions are open to members of the public and vacant positions posted publicly on City of Toronto or Government of Ontario websites. The remaining groups, such as the Toronto Real Estate Board (25 per cent) and the Canadian National Exhibition (29.2 per cent), fill board positions internally from their membership.
Women make up a slight majority of Canada’s population — 50.4 per cent according to Statistics Canada’s most recent figures — but you wouldn’t know it from looking at another StatsCan report.
In its first comprehensive report on the gender composition of corporate boards, StatsCan looked at 12,762 corporations and found women comprised a mere 19.4 per cent of all directors on company boards in 2016, the most recent data available. The same analysis found 28 per cent of corporations had one woman on board; only 15.2 per cent had more than one woman.
A dismal 56.8 per cent of corporate boards were made up entirely of men.
Boards are tasked with overall policy and budget approval as well as supervising senior staff. So why is it important to have more women on boards?
“Fifty per cent of the population is female, so why wouldn’t you have 50 per cent of your board, more or less, women? Why wouldn’t you want to have the voices of women on the board, who bring a diverse perspective from men because of our experience as women,” said Maxine Granovsky Gluskin, past president and honorary chair of the AGO board of trustees (where women make up 40.7 per cent of the board.)
“To me, having more women makes the conversation better, it makes the way the board behaves and thinks and approaches issues and problems and opportunities all the more rich,” she said.
Granovsky Gluskin said she joined the board about 15 years ago along with a whole cohort of women from diverse backgrounds.
“Historically, power has been held in the hands of mostly men and boards operated as little more (than) men’s clubs. Society has opened up and has become much more open to the idea of organizations not just being run by men. And it’s wonderful,” she said.
Eileen Costello, chair of Massey Hall/Roy Thomson Hall, said the board has adopted a target of 50-50 parity by 2021. At present, it’s just under 40 per cent.
“It’s not just about 40 per cent or 50 per cent, it’s about then taking the women that are on your board and making sure they have an equal opportunity to lead. I think it’s vitally important because otherwise, they’re just sitting around the table … they’re wallpaper,” Costello said.
Uppala Chandrasekera, a member of the Toronto Police Services Board since 2017, said she’s pleased the Police Services Act, updated earlier this year, requires municipalities to take diversity — including gender — into account when making board appointments. Women make up 42.9 per cent of the board.
“I think a public board is intended to be representative of the community it serves, and so it’s very important that women are represented,” said Chandrasekera, a former corrections officer who is also the first board member who’s a mental health professional.
Women are also leading the charge in empowering other women to join boards, including groups like Women Get On Board, founded by Deborah Rosati, who has served on corporate boards of publicly traded companies for two decades.
While women are represented on the boards of public entities and non-profits, among Canada’s biggest publicly traded companies, Rosati said the picture is not nearly as positive.
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An annual report by Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt, commissioned by the Ontario Securities Commission, found the number of women on the boards of about 750 corporations listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange is still below the StatsCan national average. In 2015, when the commission first issued its “comply or explain” model — requiring companies to identify how many women they have on their boards — the percentage was 12 per cent. It rose to 16.4 per cent last year and has risen to 18.2 per cent in 2019.
“On public sector and municipal and not-for-profits, there’s a higher ratio of women on boards. When we’re talking about corporate boards, that is a very different story,” Rosati said.
But those corporations are ignoring a wealth of evidence that shows having women on boards “makes good business sense and contributes value,” she said, noting study after study has shown boards with more women have higher levels of innovation, enhanced board effectiveness and improved corporate performance.
In Calgary, Jennifer Koury along with three other women — Heather Culbert, Linda Hohol and Andrea Goertz — all former executives now serving on public boards, founded Women on Boards, a non-profit organization sponsored by law firm McCarthy Tetrault that has created a database of qualified women and offers training for how to serve on boards.
“It’s well researched and documented that having women on boards and having other diverse candidates on boards actually increases the profit and revenues of organizations. That’s the bottom line,” Koury said, citing studies by the Harvard Business Review and others.
Koury noted that executive search firms are increasingly focused on recruiting women to serve as executives and board directors.
“More and more investors are becoming very sophisticated … and they’re looking at things like, ‘Does the board of directors of a company have a diversity policy? How many women are on the board?’ ” she added.
Young women are also rising to the challenge. A non-profit group called G(irls)20, founded in 2009 with the support of the Canadian government and the RBC Foundation, created an offshoot project in 2017 called Girls on Boards, which has trained and placed 70 women between 18 and 25 to sit on public boards, including Harbourfront Centre and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
“Young women bring a diverse perspective and lived experience to their boards. Diversity in decision-making means multiple views are considered and, ultimately, boards make better choices for the communities they serve,” spokesperson Bailey Greenspon said.
Both Costello and Chandrasekera say there’s been a welcome change in terms of societal awareness when it comes to juggling the responsibilities of family and board leadership roles.
“My daughter Grace was a month and a half old when she chaired her first meeting at Roy Thomson Hall. She was a dreamboat and slept through the whole thing,” Costello recalled.
“Five years ago … I wouldn’t have dreamed of bringing my baby to a board meeting. I don’t know if I would have felt welcome to do that. But there’s been a real shift. A lot of my male board members were thrilled to have Grace there and that, as a working mom, I was back,” she added.
Chandrasekera said she was pregnant with her youngest child when she was first appointed to the police services board. She eventually brought her infant to a board meeting and was pleasantly surprised by the reaction of fellow board members.
“For community meetings … I just brought my baby along. I would bring my son and I would feed him and have him in my arms for the whole meeting. He even took naps on the boardroom table. I’m sure he wasn’t the first to take a nap in the boardroom,” Chandrasekera said.
“Most people at the meetings, they loved it. Often having a baby in the room actually took the temperature down. People were more polite and it made difficult conversations a bit easier,” she added.
University of Toronto Professor Richard Powers of the Rotman School of Management said there has been a huge increase in the number of women taking part in the directors education program, a 12-day course run in concert with the Institute of Corporate Directors, since it began 16 years ago.
“Boards are concerned about gender and they’re looking for top candidates,” Powers said. “We’ve seen a quantum leap over the years where we’re now at 50-50 (female-male) in the program. There is a large talent pool of female candidates ready and prepared to serve on boards.”