Executives call for new laws to get more women on corporate boards in Canada

Cindy Gordon, founder and CEO of an emerging technology firm, has a long list of credentials and awards to her name, but she says she still often feels like a "token woman" as a director on corporate boards.

"Oh for sure. You just have to look at the stats. I'm in tech, right?" Gordon said from the Toronto office of her company SalesChoice.

Gordon is amongst a growing chorus calling for better strategies — even new laws — to help technology companies in Canada get more women on their boards in the wake of another report detailing the meager number of women directors.

- Just under half of 722 TSX-listed companies have at least one woman 

A report from Vell Executive Search in Boston found that 66 per cent of tech firms have zero or just one woman on their boards, and less than 12 per cent have three or more women, which the report calls "the minimum number required to correlate with greater company performance."

Vell looked at 581 public technology firms in Canada and the U.S. with at least $100 million in revenues.

The report concludes that the tech industry must take stock of the entire ecosystem, not just the largest companies, to drive gender balance on boards.

'We're not moving the needle'

Susan Richards, board director of Invest Ottawa and CEO of Givopoly, an Ottawa firm she co-founded, believes women bring a different and important perspective to corporate boards.

"When you only have a single woman on a board, which is what we typically see — a token woman — you still don't get that diversity of conversation," said Richards.

Many tech companies in Ottawa have been founded and continue to be run by men alone.

"I've never been a fan of mandated change, but the reality is as a society sometimes we need that forced change and we're not moving the needle here without it," said Richards. "It would force boards to have to acknowledge it and discuss it. I think legislation can certainly help."

Gordon agrees and doesn't think any more studies or task forces are needed.

The Vell study notes that countries including Norway, Iceland, Finland and Sweden have targets, quotas and penalties for not meeting regulations, and thus have nearly doubled the percentage of women on boards.

"I think the laws actually have to get pretty aggressive and say things like 30 per cent of all publicly traded companies need at least 30 per cent representation by women," said Gordon, adding cultural diversity also needs to be reflected on boards.

Federal budget acknowledges gap

The federal government's 2017 budget, presented in March, acknowledges the issues facing women entrepreneurs.

"Despite many conversations about helping women grow their businesses, the success rates and growth opportunities for women-led companies do not match their male counterparts," states the budget document.

"Women in Canada do not have the same opportunities as men when it comes to representation at senior leadership tables."

Programs to attract young people to science and math will try to create more gender balance in the future, the budget says, but there are no details on how the government will take action or break down barriers for women business leaders.

Gordon believes women are more holistic in their thinking and more sensitive to the collaborative nature of solving problems.

"They are really driving the purchasing power of all the products and solutions that so many companies are selling. Eighty per cent of the decisions are being made by women in terms of purchasing," she said.