More women on boards: what will it take?

A P.E.I. group wants to find out what's stopping Island women from joining boards and advisory councils.

'We hope to increase women's leadership and hope in the long term it will lead to political leadership too'

Focus group participants on P.E.I. made these suggestions about solving the problem of a lack of women on boards. (Submitted by P.E.I. Coalition for Women in Government)

A P.E.I. group wants to find out what's stopping Island women from joining boards and advisory councils. 

The P.E.I. Coalition for Women in Government has embarked on a three-year project it's calling Equity in Government, and the first step is asking all Islanders to participate in an online survey to find out their thoughts.

One of the big steps toward more women being involved in politics is joining organizations like boards, the coalition said, and it wants to discover the barriers between women and these positions.  

Board participation can play an important role in developing women leaders, says Dawn Wilson of the P.E.I. Coalition for Women in Government. (Sara Fraser/CBC )

"There's overwhelming research that shows that increased diversity in decision-making bodies leads to better results for the organization," said Dawn Wilson, executive director of the coalition.

In 2014, women held just 10 per cent of the seats in Canada's boardrooms, and 40 per cent of the top 500 Canadian companies have no women on their boards at all. 

The project, begun last fall, is funded with $245,000 from Status of Women Canada. 

Focus on barriers

The coalition held five focus groups across P.E.I. in May with about 60 men and women participating.  

The coalition is first assessing the lack of women on boards, whether they be for a local non-profit community group, a corporation such as Maritime Electric or the Bank of Canada.

The online survey, open until June 17, asks Islanders what political barriers might deter women from joining agencies, boards or commissions — offering a checklist including lack of time, lack of confidence, family commitments including child care, systemic sexism, lack of awareness about what boards exist and apply and more. 

Dawn Wilson leads a presentation about the Equity in Government project for a business group in Eastern P.E.I. (Submitted/Darlene Compton)

"Some of these things are things we already know about traditional gender roles and women — we know that women still perform two-thirds of the child care, home care," said Wilson, noting that is changing. 

The survey also asks how both women and boards might benefit from more female participation. 

Once the survey results are in, the coalition will combine the data with focus group results and other research from Canada and around the world, and launch an action plan in January 2017 that'll be implemented over 18 months. 

The coalition is even offering a prize to those who fill out the survey: a gift certificate to the King's Playhouse in Georgetown, P.E.I. 

'Road to political leadership'

The Coalition for Women in Government was formed in 2003 to work towards getting more Island women elected to all levels of government — municipal, provincial and federal.

Women sitting on boards can be a stepping stone to entering politics, says the P.E.I. Coalition for Women in Government. (iStock)

Currently 18.5 per cent of P.E.I.'s members of the legislature are women — that's one of the lowest numbers in the country after N.B., NWT and Nunavut — and 25 per cent of Canada's members of parliament are women. 

"What we heard from the very beginning from women who'd been candidates was that board participation played an important role on their road to political leadership," said Wilson. "So we've backed the bus up a bit here and said, this is one way we hope to increase women's leadership and hope in the long term it will lead to political leadership too." 

In 2014 Liberal Senator Céline Hervieux-Payette introduced a private member's bill, the Boards of Directors Modernization Act, to require the proportion of board members of either sex to be at least 40 per cent, but it did not pass. Private member's bills rarely do.

With files from Lindsay Carroll and Mitch Cormier