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BEYOND LOCAL: Women held 19% of board seats in 2019, up from 18% in 2018

The data agency based its observations on information from 7,165 corporations
A woman walks through Toronto's financial district on Monday, July 30, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy

Women made up about 19 per cent of corporate board seats in 2019, an increase from about 18 per cent from the year before, even though the total number of board seats studied fell, Statistics Canada revealed Wednesday.

The data agency based its observations on information from 7,165 corporations, a decrease from the 8,697 businesses who contributed numbers in 2018. 

It found the share of women on boards has increased at an average annual rate of 2.5 per cent every year since 2016, but within the group of boards that shared data in both 2018 and 2019, seats held by women decreased slightly from 18.4 to 18 per cent.

More than 4,300 women occupied board seats in 2019, down 10.6 per cent from 4,848 a year earlier. However, the decrease in total board seats was even greater at 14.4 per cent to 22,605 from 26,416 in 2018.

The data comes after years of advocates bemoaning the lack of women on boards and in executive positions and noting that the increases in representation women have seen are coming too slowly.

"Nothing substantially different has changed in the makeup of boards or their attempts and so it's not shocking that nothing has changed," said Allison Venditti, the founder of Moms at Work, a group working to advocate and expand the rights and education of working parents.

Because so many boards have been unwelcoming and unimpactful, she's found women are exploring their own opportunities, which include supporting or running women-led ventures and start-ups, where they feel they can make real change.

"Women are tired of signing up for (traditional boards) and unless there's something specifically changed to the make ups and structures, they're not good places for women," said Venditti.

She referenced Aviva CEO Amanda Blanc being told by shareholders at the insurer's annual general meeting last week that she is “not the man for the job” should be “wearing trousers” as an example of what some women on boards face. 

Women, Venditti pointed out, also take on more responsibilities at home that have only been exacerbated by COVID-19 and can make holding a board position even more difficult to juggle.

"During the pandemic, women's household responsibilities, even for senior women, doubled," she said. 

"There's no space and time to do board work at this moment in time, unless you're very committed to it or you're required to do it by your job or you're doing it for status."

Despite the responsibilities that come with board positions, many women aspire to and land those roles only to find themselves outnumbered.

Almost two-thirds of the boards StatCan analyzed were composed entirely of men in both 2018 and 2019. About 11.9 per cent of boards had more than one woman director in 2019, up by roughly five per cent since 2018. About 27 per cent of boards had one woman director among its members in 2019, an increase of almost four per cent since 2018.

The study found government business entities had more women on boards, followed by publicly-traded companies and then privately-held companies. 

The finance and utility sectors had the largest share of women on boards at 25.4 and 24.4 per cent respectively in 2019, while the construction and manufacturing sectors recorded the lowest proportions of women in 2019, with less than 13 per cent of directors being women in each sector.

"Their uptick isn't going to be huge because women have not been welcomed into those areas for a very, very long time and (change) doesn't happen overnight," said Venditti.

More than one-third of board seats in the Northwest Territories were occupied by women in 2019, making it the region with the highest share of women directors in 2019.

New Brunswick, Alberta and Nova Scotia were the only provinces to report decreases in the share of women directors that year.

Venditti doesn't expect to see a massive increase in the number of women on boards in the coming years, but believes that women who are anxious for change will found and develop their own businesses that eventually put pressure on other companies to shift how they are run.

She said, "You either have to say this board makeup of 12 white dudes is not consistent with who we are as a company, therefore, we're going to remove half our board and bring in new members that more accurately reflect both our employee makeup and our customer base, and if you're not willing to have that discussion, then I can't help you."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 18, 2022.

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press