Sunday, May 05, 2013

Wynne budget promotes gender diversity on boards and in business #onpoli

One item in the Ontario budget that was released this week that deserves some attention is this indication that Ontario is going to proactively step up on gender diversity in corporate Canada. In a series of measures on securities regulation, there was this statement:
The government strongly supports broader gender diversity on the boards and in senior management of major businesses, not-for-profit firms and other large organizations. In conjunction with others, including the OSC, the government will consider the best way for firms to disclose their approaches to gender diversity, with a view to increasing the participation of women on boards and in senior management.
A few points to note on this. First, the Ontario government is enlisting the Ontario Securities Commission, the largest securities regulator in the country, in the task of achieving greater gender diversity. It signals that the Ontario government means business.

Ontario is also choosing a route to further the goal. Disclosure by companies of their approaches, in corporate annual reports, is a concrete measure that will require companies to focus on the issue and present their information. The thinking is that such scrutiny will be a means of public pressure to further the goal of increasing women's representation. It's a step that is less than a legislative requirement but is greater than an entirely voluntary approach. Which seems to fit with the manner of Wynne's new imprint on the Ontario government: collaborative, pragmatic and progressive.

Consider, by contrast, the steps the Harper government is taking. Minister Ambrose announced a 25 member advisory council in early April that will report back in the fall. This large council will provide advice on how to achieve greater women's representation on corporate boards, yes. But it is advisory and there is a lack of clear direction given in the council's mandate. The federal body is also limited to women's representation on boards whereas the Ontario effort is broader.

Note also that one of the three bullet points the federal council is to consider is "how the government could recognize leaders in industry and applaud companies that have succeeded in reaching their targets." The feds seem to be envisioning more of a voluntary approach with awards of some kind. Versus the Ontario approach that will be backed by the inclusion of the regulator in the process. The federal effort may yet prove serious, but we shall see. The federal council's work may be eclipsed by Ontario's in any event.

Both of these efforts reflect that these are needed measures in Canada. Women's representation on Canadian boards, for example, is not growing, despite all the talk in recent years. Canada is now at 13.1% for women's board composition, according to a recent GMI Ratings study, compared to the U.S. at 16.9% (also no great shakes) with northern European countries coming in around the 30% mark.

A commitment to focus on women's representation in corporate Canada received support from many Liberals during the recent federal leadership race. So it's quite timely and smart of the Ontario Liberal government to do something about it. It's also a nice reminder of why we need to elect progressive governments in this country and what lasting markers for liberal principles like equality can be realized.