Gender Diversity: 4 Ways Individual Directors Can Act Now



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gender diversity

Researchers note stronger-than-average performance at companies with three or more female board directors. Countless organizations seek to encourage gender diversity in the boardroom (here, here, here and here, for example). Yet, women’s representation on boards remains in the low double digits in Canada, the US and beyond.

I’ve always been aware of gender imbalance in my workplaces, but I didn’t feel positioned to fight it. The challenge in the boardroom is even more daunting. If the Ontario Securities Commission couldn’t fix this, then how would I possibly make a difference? It always felt easier for me to get back to work and do my job.

Over the past year, however, I have experimented with tactical ways that I can contribute to the gender diversity cause. You might do the same in ways that require more thoughtful intention than hard effort, particularly in the following four areas.

Supportive on-boarding

Hours before an organization’s annual meeting, four women gathered for lunch. Three of us had served on the board for a year or more. We welcomed our new colleague with a download of everything we had learned on the job. After all, it didn’t make sense for her to learn these lessons the hard way.

This support continues via “board buddy” relationships, informal coaching pairs that allow a new director to ask questions and seek feedback. Board buddies also introduce newcomers to industry contacts at conferences and networking events. How might you support a new woman joining one of your boards?

Strategic use of airtime

I’ve written previously about the importance of insightful questions from directors. In short, good questions get answered; great questions create a platform for more discussion. By serving up an idea that leads to an engaging exchange, we do more than satisfy our curiosity on a single topic. We create opportunities for our peers to jump in and advance the dialogue, thereby demonstrating their own creativity and influence on the board.

Fortunately, research suggests that women tend to encourage rich discussion with their peers and avoid playing ping-pong with management. Professor Aaron Dhir of Osgoode Hall Law School interviewed Norwegian corporate directors impacted by the adoption of a 40% quota for female representation on corporate boards. Dhir’s research revealed that female directors are “more likely than their male counterparts to probe deeply into the issues at hand” by asking more questions, leading to more robust intra-board deliberations.

Have someone’s back

A few of my colleagues started noticing a discouraging pattern in our board meetings. A director would make a comment and her fellow directors would nod and move on. When a male board member would make the same comment minutes later, the crowd would go wild. I’m exaggerating, but this is how it felt for the overlooked director.

Apparently, these are not isolated observations. They occur with sufficient frequency that the offences have nicknames: bro-opting and bro-priation.  Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant extend the list in their NY Times opt-ed on “speaking while female.”

In more recent meetings, my female colleagues have come together to observe and respond to these situations. Firstly, we are sure to keep our own behaviour in check, given that studies have shown that women get interrupted more often, even by other women. In the event a director repeats a previously ignored idea, one of us affirms the comment and gives credit to its original source. As an added benefit, research shows that giving credit where it’s due will actually make you and the person with the idea look better.

Inclusive nominations processes

As a first step, a board’s current directors can encourage women in their networks to express interest in service. If you know a qualified woman, put her name forward to the nominating committee. (And then shoot down her excuses if she shies away, saying that she’s too busy.)

If you serve on a nominating committee, encourage diversity via your search evaluation practices. Highlight the need for diversity to your executive search advisor. Indicate openness to non-traditional candidates who may lack CEO experience. Rather than interviewing a selection of candidates based solely on their resumés, meet with every potential candidate. Doing so may uncover unique strengths that don’t convey easily on paper.

If a large candidate pool makes it impractical to interview everyone, ensure that women and men are equally represented in the short list. Prior to its acquisition by Loblaw, Shoppers Drug Mart required each interview slate to be balanced for gender.

Since 2014, US chemical conglomerate Ecolab has taken this a step further by interviewing a female-only slate before considering male candidates. Symantec Corp. limited its 2013 hunt solely to women and Johnson & Johnson followed suit in 2015. To some, women-only slates may feel like the pendulum swinging too far, but they are a sure-fire way to increase female representation.


According to Karen Horn, chair of the National Association of Corporate Directors, “the system produces white male candidates unless board leaders deliberately do something different.” Taking action may not be easy at first, but the diversity priority can only be answered by those of us inside the governance profession.

Question: How do you and the organizations you serve encourage diversity on boards? What are some of the quick-win ways you do your part?

Please share your response via Twitter, LinkedIn or e-mail.

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Gender Diversity: 4 Ways Individual Directors Can Act Now

by Tamara time to read: 4 min