Opinion

Enough with the talk about getting more women on boards. Here's how to actually do it

We don't need more studies telling us why having more women on boards is a good idea. We need an attitudinal shift, new mentorship and sponsorship programs, and women themselves to become more proactive.

We need an attitudinal shift, new sponsorship programs and women themselves to become more proactive

We can't begin to solve this problem until we acknowledge it exists. Then we need a concerted, multi-pronged effort to promote change. (Shutterstock)

You can't fix a problem without acknowledging there's a problem. But according to most of the men disproportionately occupying boardrooms across Canada, nothing needs to change in terms of gender representation at the top.

The idea that it's a smart business decision to have more women in boardrooms isn't debatable anymore. We know boards with women on them outperform their rivals, deliver higher returns and are more aggressive about taking initiative and refusing to accept poor company performance.

We also know that boards with women on them have a greater collective intelligence than those with a less diverse gender makeup. Indeed, such a strong body of evidence exists that you'd think board chairs would be standing on street corners with sandwich boards begging the best and brightest women to join their ranks. Sadly, that's not the case.

Inching toward progress

Two recent reports indicate we're moving at such a glacial pace in this area that we're virtually standing still. According to the Canadian Board Diversity Council's 2017 annual report card, women occupy 22.6 per cent of FP500 board seats – an increase of just one percentage point over the previous year. That figure represents the smallest percentage increase since the council published its first annual report card in 2010.

Meanwhile, Women in the Workplace 2017, a study sponsored by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company, found women remain underrepresented at every level and progress is stalling, even though there's no shortage of initiatives to retain and promote more of them.

The stats reveal the scope of the problem. But what's more striking is the number of respondents who don't even think we have one: 94 per cent of the board directors surveyed in the Canadian Board Diversity Council report said they believed the issue of board diversity was extremely important, but nearly 86 per cent of them said the board they were serving on was already diverse (and we know, of course, that most boards are not).

And in the Women in the Workplace study, a lot more men than women thought that the men and women in their companies were on a level playing field. So you'll have to forgive me if I'm not celebrating on this International Women's Day.

One complaint I hear a lot is that boards can't find enough qualified women. That might be a problem if the board in question is only willing to consider candidates with "president" or "CEO" already in their titles, or women that have committee-specific experience. But boards need to look beyond these titles and other strict experience-related requirements and instead assess candidates based on their potential.

One reason I was able to become a president was my company's willingness to let me run business areas that were new to me. My boss didn't make me vice-president of sales because of my sales experience — I didn't have any. He believed I had other assets. Similarly, when I joined the board of the SickKids Foundation, I was asked to sit on the HR committee, even though I had no background or training in that area. The board took the view that a strong leader knows how to find out what she needs to know, and despite having no background in HR, I eventually became chair of the HR committee.

My point is this: boards need to exercise more imagination when considering the candidates. If they do this, they would access a huge talent pool of qualified women from which to choose — an embarrassment of riches, really. And if they introduced term limits for their members, they could make room for fresh blood.

Mentorship and sponsorship

Companies also have a responsibility to nurture their talent through mentorship and sponsorship programs in order to move women into the c-suite. Many have mentorship programs already – which is great – but sponsorship is more important.

While mentorship is about guidance, sponsorship is about advocacy. A sponsor is someone at a senior level who expands the perception of what their protégé can do, and recommends themfor key assignments. Sponsors don't just give advice and act as sounding boards, they're advocates for their protégé's next promotion and actively connect them to opportunities and senior leadership.Sponsorship is more important for women than mentorship because it means you have an ally to help you up the corporate ladder.

Companies need to formalize the process of sponsorship by rewarding senior management for identifying top talent and ensuring they have the opportunity to work on key projects. One initiative I've personally undertaken is to choose an up-and-comer to serve as my strategic advisor for two years.

Advocating for advancement

Finally, women need to be more proactive. Not just about their career advancement, but about identifying companies that interest them, reaching out to board chairs, heads of nomination committees and taking board training courses. I understand how easy it is to become cynical. Why bother investing time, money or knocking on doors when most boards are still boys' clubs? I get it. But I don't think anyone opens a door unless you knock.

We don't need more studies telling us why having more women on boards is a good idea. We need an attitudinal shift. We can't begin to solve this problem until we acknowledge it exists. Then we need a concerted, multi-pronged effort to promote change. If anyone wonders why change is necessary, don't tell them it's 2018: tell them it's good business practice.

Lisa Lisson is the first female president of FedEx Express Canada. She sits on the board of the SickKids Foundation and is chair of the Human Resource and Compensation Committee. Lisa also sits on the board of the directors for the Canadian Business Council of Canada.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Lisa Lisson

Lisa Lisson is the first female president of FedEx Express Canada. She sits on the board of the SickKids Foundation and is chair of the Human Resource and Compensation Committee. Lisa also sits on the board of the directors for the Canadian Business Council of Canada.

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