We all know highly qualified, inspirational women fully capable of sitting on a corporate board. And yet, there is a general perception that the existing pool of experienced senior women on which to draw is simply too small, and that gender parity on corporate boards is, in fact, a “pipeline” problem. With the number of Canadian women executive officers having remained stagnant for the last seven years at 15 to 18%1, more work is required to increase opportunities for women to achieve senior leadership roles. This extends to governance roles such as board placement, for which access is similarly a major obstacle. Filling new board positions can be a challenging, time consuming process, thus it is unsurprising that corporate board members select from their own networks, thereby often recruiting in their own image. Connecting “face-to-face” with the people filling these important positions is therefore critical for anyone aspiring to achieve a corporate board appointment, as is clearly articulating one’s goals to ensure consideration2.
An intangible but unavoidable hurdle for many women aiming to join boards is an unwelcoming corporate culture. This seemingly insurmountable barrier can range from a boardroom culture wherein replacement positions are chosen from a narrow, homogenous pool, to outright discrimination. Trends are improving, with 71.7% of companies of the S&P/TSX 60 having now adopted targets for women directors. However, the results of these targets continue to be disappointing with women in this same pool of companies holding only 33.2% of all board seats, a modest increase of “1.9%” compared to 2020. (Osler: Andrew MacDougall et al, 2021)1. To achieve their goals of better representation, companies must go beyond vocalizing a need for diversity and actually seek it out. This can mean formalizing the expansion of who is sought to fill vacant seats, having a board Chair who makes an effort to ensure diversity of thought is being heard and valued on the board, and creating skill matrices and board performance evaluation structures. Effective boards are built on a culture of directors who challenge and ask questions. Ineffective boards tend to stick to the status quo and are thus less responsive to new opportunities and the demands of changing business needs. Diversity of thought and lived experience helps counteract stagnation; board representatives should be as diverse as the people they serve.
The perpetual dilemma of needing previous board experience to qualify for a board position makes it difficult to break in, especially for those without the “right” network. Succession planning can be a huge drain on their resources. Understandably, there is a bias towards recruiting directors with experience, since they must absorb a large volume of company-specific information and become useful in a very short period of time – a challenge even for seasoned veterans. Some boards recognize this problem and implement formal processes to bring new members up to speed quickly. However, this training is less comprehensive than conventional onboarding programs, as the board would expect a new director to already understand their role and expectations, especially as they relate to governance regulations. This can be daunting for new members with no previous board experience . Moreover, for many it requires a massive ideological shift to understand the distinction between management and oversight. This all boils down to many qualified candidates lacking the confidence to raise their hand and take an open board position. Many dynamic professionals feel they lack the skill set to be impactful on a board, or when asked to apply, feel it is a token request to fill a quota.
First time directors can mitigate the problems related to onboarding by acquiring skills-based governance training prior to taking a board appointment. With these programs, they will learn the roles and responsibility of a board, governance regulations, current issues that generally affect boards, and most importantly, the language and confidence they need to effectively leverage their skills and make an impact. Another way to navigate this process is through mentorship. Boards that already have onboarding programs often also encourage mentorship by pairing a senior board member with a new recruit. This formal process assists with the socialization that is required for a collaborative group to function effectively. Mentorship in general is a powerful tool that helps candidates searching for that first board seat to make critical decisions.
In response to these concerns, the Greater Montreal Chapter of Women in Bio (WIB-Greater Montreal), in collaboration with the McGill University Executive Institute, has created a professional development program as part of the solution to accelerate the process for Life Sciences Boards across Canada. The Excellence in Canadian Board Governance (ECBG) program aims to address these issues by providing opportunities for exclusive networking, peer mentorship, and a board competency-building curriculum, enabling participants to gain confidence as an effective director. This board governance training program will be delivered as 10 half-day live virtual modules from September to December 2022. Graduates will receive a certificate from the McGill Executive Institute upon successful completion. Interested candidates are invited to apply here: https://www.womeninbio.org/page/ECBGApp.
- 2021 Diversity Disclosure Practices – Diversity and leadership at Canadian public companies. Andrew MacDougall et al, Osler Report 2021
- How Networking Can Help Women Secure Board Seats. Lisa D Ellis, Harvard T.H.Chan School of Public Health, Executives and Continuing Professional Education. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/ecpe/networking-help-women-board-seats/