Women made up roughly 19 per cent of corporate board seats in 2019, an increase from 18 per cent the year before, even though the total number of board seats studied fell, according to new data from Statistics Canada.
The data agency based its observations on information from 7,165 corporations, a decrease from the 8,697 businesses that 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 per cent to 18 per cent.
More than 4,300 women occupied board seats in 2019, down 11 per cent from 4,848 a year earlier. However, the decrease in total board seats was even greater at 14 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 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,” says 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 finding 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.”
Venditti references Amanda Blanc, chief executive officer of Aviva, being told by shareholders at the insurer’s annual general meeting that she’s “not the man for the job” and should be “wearing trousers” as an example of what some women on boards face.
Women also take on more responsibilities at home that have only been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and can make holding a board position even more difficult, she adds. “During the pandemic, women’s household responsibilities, even for senior women, doubled. 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.”
Almost two-thirds of the boards analyzed by Stats Can were composed entirely of men in both 2018 and 2019. Roughly 12 per cent of boards had more than one woman director in 2019, up by nearly five per cent since 2018. A quarter (27 per cent) of boards had one woman director among its members in 2019, an increase of almost four per cent since 2018.
In 2019, the finance and utility sectors had the largest share of women on boards at 25 per cent and 24 per cent, respectively, 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.
While Venditti says she doesn’t expect to see a massive increase in the number of women on boards in the coming years, she believes women who are anxious for change will found and develop their own businesses that eventually put pressure on other companies to shift how they’re run.
“You either have to say this board make up 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 make up and our customer base — and if you’re not willing to have that discussion, then I can’t help you.”