Illustration by Franziska Barczyk

Three years after regulators brought in new rules to boost gender balance on boards and in executive suites, corporate Canada still has a long way to go.

That’s the consensus among experts looking at surveys analysing the companies and sectors that have made the most progress in balancing men and women on their boards and in their C-suites.

“No, we’re not making enough progress – we need to be moving much faster,” says Jennifer Reynolds, president and CEO of Women in Capital Markets, a nationwide network that advocates for women in this part of the financial sector.

“In the first two years, the OSC has found – and I agree – that the uptake [in encouraging gender balance] has been dismal,” says Pamela Jeffery, founder and principal of the Pamela Jeffery Group, which advises companies on diversity.

This year’s surveys looked at how Canadian companies have been faring since 2014, when the Ontario Securities Commission and other regulators in Canada brought in new disclosure rules aimed at making the gender compositions of corporate boards and management more transparent.


Mandatory disclosure

The OSC took what lawyers call a “mandatory disclosure” approach. It did not require companies to adopt any specific target.

The OSC rules are based on the principle of “comply or explain.” If companies fall short of gender parity goals, they simply have to say what happened and why, with no penalty.

Reynolds, Jeffery and other experts agree that this year’s results are at best, underwhelming.

The highest-ranking company, HSBC Canada, received an overall score of 58.5 per cent – a composite of having 50 per cent women on its board and 67 per cent in its executive offices. These numbers also earned the financial sector the highest-ranking industry in the latest survey.

Top 10 on TSX

CompanyIndustryWomen on boardWomen in executive positionsScore
TVA GroupCommunication & entertainment50.0%44.0%47.0%
TorstarCommunication & entertainment46.0%36.4%41.2%
HSBC Bank CanadaFinancial services50.0%67.0%58.5%
Sienna Senior LivingReal estate50.0%60.0%55.0%
ExtendicareReal estate44.0%50.0%47.0%
Dream Hard Asset Alternatives TrustReal estate43.0%50.0%46.5%
Chartwell Retirement ResidencesReal estate25.0%61.0%43.0%
Wall FinancialReal estate16.7%66.7%41.7%
Dream Office Real Estate Investment TrustReal estate37.5%43.0%40.3%
The Second CupRetail16.7%57.0%36.8%


Top companies by industry

CompanyIndustryWomen on boardWomen in executive positionsScore
Cynapsus TherapeuticsBiotechnology38%0%18.8%
TVA GroupCommunication & entertainment50%44%47.0%
HSBC Bank CanadaFinancial services50%67%58.5%
ADF GroupManufacturing25%40%32.5%
Parkland FuelOil & gas25%29%26.8%
Pizza Pizza RoyaltyOther40%0%20.0%
Sienna Senior Living (formerly Leisureworld Senior Care)Real estate50%60%55.0%
The Second CupRetail17%57%36.8%
Solium CapitalTechnology25%27%26.0%


Top 5 non-TSX firms

CompanyIndustryWomen on boardWomen in executive positionsScore
Vancouver City Savings Credit UnionBanks67%71%69.00%
Mountain Equipment Co-opRetail44%44%44.00%
Federated Co-operativesOil & gas47%13%30.00%


Last on the top 10 was Second Cup. Only 16.7 per cent of its board is female, while women make up 57 per cent of its executive workforce for a combined score of 36.8 per cent.

Real estate companies dominated the top 10 with six on the list: Sienna Senior Living, Extendicare, Dream Hard Asset Alternatives Trust, Chartwell Retirement Residences, Wall Financial and Dream Office Real Estate Investment Trust.

Communications and entertainment companies also made the top 10: TVA Group and Torstar, along with Second Cup, categorized as retail.

When ranked by industry, the top sectors in the survey in order were: financial services, real estate, communications and entertainment, biotechnology, retail, transportation, utilities, manufacturing, oil and gas, mining and “other” (Pizza Pizza Royalty).


Targets vs. quotas

In Ontario, Premier Kathleen Wynne called for businesses to set a gender-diversity target of 30 per cent on their boards by the end of this year, with a subsequent target of 40 per cent by 2019. Wynne accepted 11 recommendations made by Catalyst, a not-for-profit group dedicated to boosting workplace diversity.

In a report issued last year, Catalyst called the OSC reporting requirements a step in the right direction, but its overall view was that, “Canada continues to lag behind other developed nations in terms of gender balance on corporate boards.”

Catalyst’s 11 recommendations included calling for “more stringent legislative or regulatory approaches” if sufficient progress is not made toward the 30 per cent target endorsed by the premier.

“Europe, where legal requirements for women’s representation exist in many countries, leads the world,” Catalyst’s report said.

Catalyst’s research led to the question of whether the OSC and Canada’s other securities regulators need more robust regulation and should consider explicit targets for male-female balance and perhaps even quotas.

For example, Norway brought in gender quotas in 2003, giving companies until 2008 to meet the standards it set or face penalties. While Norwegian companies didn’t quite meet the 40 per cent standard, they went from 6.8 per cent women on boards in 2002 to 35.5 per cent in 2014, the highest in the world.

Britain followed up on a 2010 recommendation by Lord Davies of Abersoch, who stopped short of calling for quotas but suggested explicit targets for gender parity.

Women’s representation on FTSE 100 boards has more than doubled since 2011 to reach 26.1 per cent in 2015. Significantly, by 2015 there were no companies on the FTSE 100 with all-male boards.

In the U.S., the Securities and Exchange Commission requires companies to disclose their boards’ gender balance, but companies that do not have diversity policies are not required to explain why not

In 2014, women held 19.2 per cent of board seats in the U.S., and Catalyst notes that this simple disclosure policy “is widely viewed as ineffective.”


What next for Canada?

What should the OSC and Canada do to boost gender parity?

“In our 150th year, we could be and should be talking about being a global leader,” says Ellen Auster, professor of strategic management at York University’s Schulich School of Business.

She and other experts agree that setting explicit quotas for male-female balance would be a hard sell in Canada.

“With quotas, we get the whole notion of glass cliffs – putting women on boards but not supporting them or tapping their knowledge and expertise,” Auster says.

She says more research and information is needed too about the companies and sectors that are falling far short of balance. She would like to know what’s stopping such companies to know better how to overcome the obstacles.

“We probably should better understand the barriers and provide support rather than blaming them.”

Both Reynolds and Jeffery say that rather than quotas, the OSC and its counterparts should go for targets, along the line of the 30 per cent target called for by Ontario.

“Targets are an aspirational goal that companies have for all their other business aspirations,” Reynolds notes. They set targets for revenues and earnings, so why not parity, she adds.

Targets would help companies address an issue that’s not just about right and wrong, Jeffery says.

“I believe that the regulation needs to be strengthened in order to deliver the outcomes that we all want to see – improving our economy and delivering better financial results.”

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