Breaking up the old boys’ club

VICTORIA (CUP) – Corporate Canada is still mostly a man’s world.

In 2007, a Catalyst Census survey found that women held only 13 per cent of board positions in Canada’s 500 largest firms. The newly formed Canadian Board Diversity Council is hoping to boost that number to 20 per cent over the next four years.

The council, founded by 30 organizations, including some of Canada’s largest firms, says that cracking male-dominated networks is one of the biggest challenges facing “board-ready” businesswomen today.

“A lot of the [board] candidates are chosen from the CEO ranks and the corner-suite ranks of major corporations,” said Colleen Johnston, chief financial officer of TD Bank Financial Group, one of the council’s founding members. “It’s the ‘who knows who’ within that community.”

The 2007 Catalyst survey of women directors found that “reliance on informal ‘old boys’ networks’ continues to be a significant factor in how new board directors are recruited.”

Johnston said a key goal of the council is “making sure that there is greater awareness of that broader talent pool out there.”

One of Canada’s top female executives, she said diversity is increasingly vital to any firm’s success.

“You want the widest range of perspectives, whether that’s men, women, visible minorities, people with disabilities, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, or aboriginal employees.” she said.

“That only makes you a stronger organization, when you can really embrace diversity as a business imperative.”

Johnston says boosting diversity and creating a “fair and equitable workplace” is a “huge priority” for TD.

“You look at our business – and many businesses – and we have a large female clientele,” she said. “So we have to really make sure that we have all of those perspectives.”

Since the pool of graduates from business and professional schools is increasingly diverse, firms that already have well-established cultures of diversity are better able to attract and keep top graduates.

“There’s a war on for talent, and you’ve got to have the best and the brightest people on your team,” said Johnston.

But boosting diversity can still be a challenge. Johnston said that while “blatant discrimination” no longer exists, “there are always subtle forms of sexism and discrimination.”

“Let’s face it – there is subjectivity that comes into decision making around recruiting or promoting people,” she said. “There’s a human tendency to recruit and promote people that are like you. And I think you have to push back against that tendency and create as much objectivity and fairness as possible [in your recruitment and promotion processes].”

TD has increased the percentage of women in its senior ranks from 22 per cent in 2005 to 33 per cent in 2009. Five of TD’s 18 board members are women, well above the Canadian average.
“John Thompson, the chair of our board [at TD], would say that the job isn’t done, but that we’re really pleased with our [diversity] programs as well,” said Johnston.

Johnston urges aspiring businesswomen – and men – to focus first and foremost on discipline and technical skills, and also to “be demanding of yourself, be demanding of your organization, look for ways to get involved and to be a leader.”

“What will ultimately define your success in your career, if you want to progress in your career, is leadership,” she said. “It’s about people, it’s about relationships and it’s so important that you focus on developing those skills.

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