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EDITOR'S BLOG
Apr 10, 2012

Good news for women (and our economy) in budget’s fine print

Ottawa creating advisory council to pave way for more women on corporate boards
    

By Todd Humber

Usually, when something is buried in the fine print, it’s not good news. Not so with the recent federal budget.

Hidden among all the headline-grabbing talk of putting the penny out to pasture and raising the normal retirement age for Old Age Security (OAS) benefits was a couple of paragraphs about the representation of women on corporate boards.

Ottawa announced it is creating an “advisory council of leaders from the private and public sectors to promote the participation of women on corporate boards.”

The budget document went on to point out “Canadian women have high levels of education and business experience. Many lead successful businesses and are active members of corporate boards. Yet they remain underrepresented on boards of directors and in top leadership positions.”

Surprised that Ottawa considers this a priority?

Don’t be.

Think the feds are only doing it as a token move so they can say they’re trying to do something?

Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.

Because as much as the dearth of women on corporate boards is a gender equality issue, it’s an even more pressing economic problem. Ottawa knows this — the more women they can get into the senior ranks, the better companies will perform.

That’s good for economic growth, that’s good for the unemployment rate and — this is where the rubber really meets the road — that’s good for tax revenues. The fact it’s also the right thing to do is mere icing on the cake.

“Increasing opportunities for women to serve on corporate boards makes good business sense for Canadian women and for Canada’s economy,” the budget document states.

What’s mystifying about the lack of progress in finding women a seat at the table is how many smart people already understand its importance.

The lack of women on boards is hardly a state secret. For years, organizations like Catalyst have been charting the dismal progress of women in leadership. I had the privilege of attending the 2011 Catalyst Canada Honours: Celebrating Champions of Women Business event in Toronto last year.

More than 60 CEOs were in the room that night and they were presented with the stark figure of 17.7 per cent — that’s how many senior positions at Canadian companies are held by women.

The good news is this new advisory council won’t have to start from scratch — there are plenty of groups able to help out. Organizations such as Catalyst have laid a lot of the ground work. Women On Board, a Vancouver-based not-for-profit society that works to promote the appointment of women to corporate boards, applauded the move and signaled it’s eager to work with Ottawa.

“Any significant increase of women in the corporate boardroom can only happen if corporate and board leaders are actively involved, engaged and connected with qualified women candidates,” said Carol Stephenson, director and co-founder of Women On Board and dean of the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont. “We applaud the government’s initiative to promote progress on each front and hope our network of qualified women director candidates and engaged senior business leaders, that we have developed over the last six years, will be helpful to them.”

Stephenson certainly knows what she’s talking about — she’s a director on several corporate boards, including General Motors and Intact Financial.

Whether this new advisory council is the proverbial straw the breaks the camel’s back remains to be seen. But all organizations should “get on board” with this initiative and commit to increasing the number of women on the board and in the senior leadership ranks.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. He can be reached at todd.humber@thomsonreuters.com. For complete coverage of the federal budget and what it means for HR professionals and employers, see the April 23 issue of Canadian HR Reporter.

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