March was Women’s History Month, and it’s been a little over a year since the “Fearless Girl” statue was added to Wall Street. Her campaign pushed more than 150 companies to add women to what were previously all-male boards, but there is still a long way to go to reach equality. Less than one in five of the nearly 800 all-male boards in that campaign have since added at least one woman.
I’ve founded and run a number of tech businesses over the years, and I know how it feels to be the only woman in the room. It can impact a person’s ability to make their opinion known. Men outnumber women in leadership by more than four times, and of boards that do include women, we still on average serve less time in these board seats — around seven years, whereas a man’s average tenure is 10 years. Women consequently have less time and fewer representatives to make an impact on the boards they serve on.
In the fall of 2016, the Canadian government proposed amendments to statutes for federal corporations, with the changes requiring certain corporations to provide shareholders with information on the diversity of directors and senior management. When 750 companies disclosed the number of women on their boards in 2016, of approximately 5,717 seats, just 718 (12.6%) were held by women.
Believe it or not, this is progress. In 2016, 46% of companies had no women on their boards, so the fact that that number has declined to 37% is actually a significant improvement, but clearly there is still a long way to go before we see anything close to parity. On average, these boards have about seven members — one woman in a room full of men is not progress enough. Even with a presence, being the only woman in the room is not easy — we communicate differently and can more easily be marginalized.
Of S&P/TSX 60 companies that chose to disclose such information, 47% have adopted targets to improve the representation of women on their boards, but only 12% have a target for the representation of women on their boards.
While many larger companies have at least one woman on their boards, this number drops drastically among smaller publicly listed companies.
So if everyone sees the benefits of diverse leadership teams, why is the needle barely moving? CBC posted an op-ed by Lisa Lisson in which she describes boards complaining of not being able to find qualified women. She argues and that in order to do so they must look beyond the list of folks who already have “CEO” or “president” in their titles. This makes sense — we all have to start our careers somewhere, and nearly every president or CEO held another title before earning that one. There can be experiences that actually add far more value than specific titles ever could.
Andrea Jung, chief executive of Grameen America and a member on the board of Apple was quoted in The Economic Times as saying, “You cannot start changing the culture unless you have the numbers — first one, then two, then three and hopefully more women on boards over a period of time.”
This is also absolutely true — one woman in a room full of men isn’t going to provide the same boost in collective intelligence that an equal number of men and women could. I know how it feels to be the only woman in the room, and how it can impact your ability to contribute or be heard. The Yield Growth Corp.’s board is mostly female, and I have seen first hand just what a positive impact this has on creativity, collaboration and effectiveness.
Something I have always made a point of as well is advocating for other women, and this is hugely important. Women need to support each other in the mission for equal representation — there is plenty of room at the top for us. Reach out and ask for a chance. Believe that you are smart and capable of adding value, and prove it.
By Penny Green
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