On closing the gender gap: how can women rise as board chairs, members and entrepreneurs? A special report . . . .

A special report on women and boards in Saskatchewan: community leaders weigh in . . .

The importance of increasing the participation of women in entrepreneurship and business continues to be much discussed in the media and at public events. Ten days ago, Saskatoon’s networking event, “Shaken with a Twist,” featured the testimonies of award-winning entrepreneur, Rachel Mielke (Hillberg & Berk); and CEO of Women Entrepreneurs of SK (WESK), Prabha Mitchell.

The next day, WESK announced a 12-member Saskatchewan Advisory Committee to close the gender entrepreneurship gap in SK. The gap is that gender parity in the business community is only growing at three-tenths of a percent (3/10%) annually. At that rate, it will take 180 years for women to achieve equality in business with men in Saskatchewan.

Why should entrepreneurs care? Mitchell observes that women contribute “$148 billion to the Canadian economy [2011] and that advancing gender equality has the potential to add another $150 B to $420 B to the economy by 2026.” Therefore, this is not only an issue of supporting women entrepreneurs to achieve gender equity, but “is part of a strong economic policy” (September 13, 2019).

Both purposes should matter a great deal to Saskatchewan’s entrepreneurial community. How can we possibly think of entrepreneurial success without redressing the fundamental inequalities that persist in our community?

The Directors Education Program (DEP), offered in Saskatchewan by the Edwards School of Business (U of S, and affiliated with the Institute of Corporate directors and the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management), is working to diversify the economic and business landscape, including by accrediting and welcoming more women not only to the boardroom, but to the director’s chairs of those boardrooms.

Graduates in recent years have included Christine Hrudka, Julie Ann Wriston and Monica Kreuger.

The Saskatoon Regional Economic Development Authority (SREDA) reported on September 17th that “half of the country’s sectors currently fall short of meeting the goal of women achieving 30% representation around board tables—a goal set by the Federal Government for 2019. Much work remains to be done to reach that goal.”

Saskatoon currently performs better than the national level, since many organizations meet that 30% threshold: more than one-third of board positions and approximately one-quarter of board chairs in local organizations are held by women. But statistically, women comprise 50.6% of Saskatoon’s population is women (2016 CMA Census). So, a gap in representation persists. And we shouldn’t be measuring ourselves against lower, national statistics, or (as Seth Godin says) we will race to the bottom.

The Federal Government installed (in 2015) a “comply-or-explain” rule, whereby publicly traded companies must list how many women sit on boards and in executive positions. Prior to this, statistics showed that 60% of Canada’s publicly traded boards had at least one woman member but a full 40% did not. The compliance rule has helped to grow those statistics, since, by 2018, only 7.5% of boards had no female representation.

SREDA rightly summarizes, however, that “although governments, businesses and postsecondary institutions are already taking steps toward building a more inclusive society, discussions around gender equality serve as a reminder of the much-needed work that lies ahead.”

Fed-Ex Canada President, Lisa Lisson, wrote last year for the CBC that that most of the men who occupy boardrooms in the country don’t recognize the problem. They are ignorant to the realities that women on boards “outperform their rivals, deliver higher returns and are more aggressive about taking initiative and refusing to accept poor company performance” (March 8, 2018; https://www.cbc.ca/news/opinion/womenon-boards-1.4566959 ).

Women contribute to a “greater collective intelligence” on boards, but statistics show that “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” (March 8, 2018).

Lisson wrote in frustration that what’s needed is some actual strategies to get more women on boards: “We need a concerted, multi-pronged effort to promote change.”

She suggested the following strategies:

  • Companies hiring women and boards choosing members should “exercise more imagination when considering the candidates”: let women lead business areas where they have no previous experience, because they have other assets and will grow into the position (e.g. Lisson was earlier made VP of Sales at FedEx with no sales experience and sat on the HR committee of SickKids Foundation without any training in that area. She rose to later become, respectively, president of the company; and chair of the HR committee.)

Women represent a huge talent pool of qualified women from which to choose—”an embarrassment of riches.” So, introduce limited terms for members, Lisson argues, to make room for more women.

  •  While mentorship is important for women’s advancement, at higher levels, sponsorship is “more important” and largely overlooked. It consists of “someone at a senior level who expands the perception of what their protégé can do, and recommends them for key assignments . . . Sponsorship is more important for women than mentorship, because it means that [women] have any ally to help [get] up the corporate ladder.”
  •  Women need to be more proactive, not just about bettering their careers, but about “identifying companies that interest them, reaching out to board chairs, heads of nomination committees and taking board training courses.” Women must keep knocking at these old boys’ clubs, if the doors are ever to open, she writes.
  •  Lisson stresses that hands-on strategies matter because we don’t need more studies on why having more women on boards is important, but we need “an attitude shift that is ultimately about good business practice.”

And now it’s your turn. How do you notice women’s underrepresentation in your industry? What steps are you taking to close that gap?

Please write in; I’d be delighted to hear from you.