Ask a Canadian analyst — or Canadian investors — what they think about valuing women and men equally in the corporate world, and both groups will tell you there's a real benefit to it.

One analyst who supplies high-level institutional investors with advice collected evidence that shows having women on boards pays off with higher stock price gains — as much as 50 per cent higher, on average.

Women on boards may understand the end customer better or bring different leadership styles and perspectives to an organization, says CIBC equity strategist Ian de Verteuil of his findings. 

Investors seem to agree and they also want equal pay for both sexes. In a recent online survey, the Responsible Investment Association asked Canadian investors if they believe men and women should receive equal pay for equal work — 92 per cent agreed.

A majority, 55 per cent, of the respondents said they'd be willing to put their money where their mouth is and sell their stakes in any company that doesn't pay people equally for the same work.

It may be the next evolution of responsible investing, like choosing green technology companies over so-called sin stocks, like tobacco companies. But investing in firms that pay employees equally isn't easy.

"Canadian companies largely do not report on gender pay statistics, so it's difficult, if not impossible, to tell if there are any leaders on pay equity," Dustyn Lanz, chief operating officer of the Responsible Investment Association, said.

OSC wants reporting on diversity on boards

The Ontario Securities Commission doesn't have requirements specifically around pay equity in its regulations. Instead, it is focused on the push for companies to adopt policies on gender representation on corporate boards and in executive roles.

At the end of 2014, securities regulators across the country adopted "comply and explain" guidelines for reporting gender diversity on boards. The guidelines don't include firm targets, but companies are urged to comply with the guidelines — and must explain their policies if they don't.

"Gender diversity is a priority for the OSC, and we want to see more progress made here," said the OSC's Director of Corporate Finance Huston Loke. It's "not just an issue for regulators, but for all organizations who can help in moving this issue forward," Loke said.

Tanya van Biesen, executive director at Catalyst Canada, says the black hole of data on pay equity makes that problem harder to fix.

"Transparency and data are key to closing the gender pay gap that exists in many organizations," she said. 

"When investors understand whether companies collect and analyze this data ... they can in turn assess the degree to which these companies are serious about talent acquisition and talent management, which we know to be leading indicators of overall performance."

Alphabet board rejects call to disclose

Yet shareholders of tech giant Alphabet, the parent company of Google, recently rejected a push for the company to disclose pay disparities between male and female employees.

Alphabet's board advised against the move, saying it "does not believe that it is in the best interests of the company and its stockholders."

Lanz of the Responsible Investment Association says that regulators, government and investors need to put pressure on companies to change for their own good. Because it will cost their bottom line in the long run if they don't, he says.

"I think that there is real risk of companies seeing reputational risk if they don't start taking action," Lanz said.

Companies with women on board outperform

It's not just bad press they need to worry about.

In his report entitled The Harsh Truth, de Verteuil found that companies with all-male boards underperform on the stock market compared with firms with diverse boards.

Toronto Stock Exchange winter spring

A new report found companies with all-male boards underperform on the stock market compared with firms with diverse boards. (Don Pittis/CBC)

According to de Verteuil's research, from 2009 to 2016, companies with one or more women on their boards listed on the S&P/TSX Composite had an average annual return of 11.1 per cent, compared to companies with zero women that had an average return of 7.4 per cent.

"Obviously there are a thousand other variables that go into that," de Verteuil said. "But certainly you would say it appears that having women on board improves results and better stock performance, than if you don't."

Despite the potential to benefit from having women on boards — Canadian companies aren't rushing to do so.

Canada a laggard on the issue

In Canada in 2016 women made up just 19 per cent of board members at companies listed on the S&P/TSX Composite Index. That's up from nine per cent in 2010, but it's still behind the S&P 500 in the U.S., where women make up 22 per cent of board representation.

Plus, 10 per cent of companies on the TSX don't have any female board members at all.

De Verteuil offered some explanations for why companies in the U.S. may be ahead, including that the companies in the S&P 500 are comparably larger than those on the S&P/TSX, and likely targets of greater scrutiny than the smaller Canadian companies.

"Whether it's pressure being brought to bear, or whether it's having good foresight, I don't know which one it is," de Verteuil said. 

But de Verteuil dismisses claims that there aren't enough women qualified or willing to be part of a board in Canada. 

"The U.S. seems to be able to do it pretty well," de Verteuil said, "so why can't we?"