Kellie Leitch, Canada’s minister for women’s issues, said she’s contacting the country’s largest companies in a campaign to increase the number of woman on corporate boards.
Leitch intends to use moral suasion to meet the government’s goal of raising the representation of women on boards to 30 percent within five years, she said in an Aug. 14 interview at Bloomberg’s Toronto offices.
Letters were sent to all of Canada’s 500 largest companies last week and follow-up telephone calls will be made if needed, she said. The government will also monitor the board structures of federally regulated companies.
“We are reaching out to all” of them, said Leitch, minister for the status of women and labor minister in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government, “and compelling them to think about this.”
A government advisory council in June recommended a national benchmark for participation of women on boards, suggesting that publicly traded companies set goals and timelines for increased female involvement and explain why they’re succeeding or lagging behind.
Women held 10 percent of positions on Canadian boards in 2012, even though they held more than a third of business administration master’s degrees in 2011, and represented almost half of students at the master’s level in business and management programs in 2010, according to the report.
The Ontario Securities Commission earlier this year proposed disclosure rules for companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange that would compel them to report their policies for women in the workplace and targets for more representation.
Women account for 11 percent of the boards of the 235 companies in the Standard & Poor’s/TSX for which there are figures available, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Of the same 235 companies, there are six with female chief executive officers or the equivalent.
Leitch, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon with a doctorate of medicine from the University of Toronto and an MBA from Dalhousie University, said only about 5 percent of students entering surgical sub-specialties were women when she graduated from medical school. That’s now about one-third, she said.
“This is about leadership,” said Leitch, who remains an unpaid practicing physician at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa while in government.
The government’s initiative has been well received by executives, and champions of the effort include executives such as Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNQ) ChairmanMurray Edwards, Leitch said.
“The number of men approaching me to say, ‘We’re glad you did this,’ and they are stepping up. I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” said Leitch, who became involved in politics as a teenager and is now one of the top organizers in Ontario for the Conservative Party. Many men “are proactively calling me to say, ‘I just want you to know we’ve just now appointed a women or two women to our board.’”
The minimum board guidance mimics the goals of the 30 Percent Club, a U.K.-based organization that encourages women on boards and is starting operations Canada in September. That organization, which began in 2010, says it has attracted the support of investor groups managing 2 trillion pounds ($3.3 trillion) of assets.
Leitch said the government will stick to a voluntary approach, and ruled out quota requirements that exist in other countries such as France and Norway.
“If you don’t earn your place at the table, you are not respected and you are not listened to,” she said.
The Canadian advisory council, which was established last year, also recommended asking publicly traded firms to publish two- and five-year goals for board renewal and working with provincial and territorial governments to develop a national approach.
The Canadian government is trying to lead by example by increasing the number of women it names to public appointments, from just over 30 percent today, Leitch said.
Leitch, who was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba and grew up in Fort McMurray, Alberta, ran for office in 2011 in the district of Simcoe-Grey, a largely rural area north of Toronto known for its potato farms. She credits the late Jim Flaherty, Canada’s former finance minister, for encouraging her to enter politics.
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