07/20/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 09/18/2014 05:59 EDT

Women on corporate boards: companies need 'to open their minds'

Liberal Senator Céline Hervieux-Payette is determined to speed up the glacial pace at which women are cracking the ranks of corporate boards of directors.

Hervieux-Payette has introduced a private member's bill, the Boards of Directors Modernization Act, which would require the proportion of board members of either sex to be at least 40 per cent.

"We really need to push the companies to open their minds," Hervieux-Payette told Laura Lynch, guest host of CBC Radio One’s The Sunday Edition this week.

Currently, women hold just 10 per cent of the seats in Canada’s boardrooms, and 40 per cent of the top 500 Canadian companies have no women on their boards at all. According to the Conference Board of Canada, at the current rate, it will take 151 years to see gender parity on boards.

In a report last month, the federal Advisory Council for Women on Boards set a voluntary target to increase women's participation on boards to 30 per cent within five years.

But Hervieux-Payette said that such voluntary measures have failed in Norway and the UK, while mandatory quotas in some European countries and Quebec have swiftly ushered more women into boardrooms.

A 2006 Quebec law requires male-female parity on the boards of Crown corporations in that province.

"We have introduced that and there is nothing falling apart," said Hervieux-Payette.

Meanwhile, in the absence of quotas, she said the trend among federal Crown corporations has been in the opposite direction.

Female representation down in recent years

The federal Liberals and NDP crunched the numbers and found that women leading government agencies and Crown corporations, sitting on boards and filling management roles peaked at 37 per cent in 2005. Almost a decade later, women hold only 22.6 per cent of directorships on the boards of Crown corporations and 31.6 per cent of senior management positions, Liberal Party calculations show.

Hervieux-Payette said there hasn’t been enough change since the Harper government set up the Advisory Council for Women on Boards in 2012.

“I haven't seen any initiative that really will change things,” she said.

A quota would certainly hasten change, but the word leaves a bad taste in some people’s mouths.

“I’m French-Canadian. We don’t use that word in French,” she said, “[but] the word 'quota' in English seems to have a very negative connotation.”

A law is the right place to start, she said, “so that women in Canada are contributing to the level of their talents.”

When asked whether enough women have the qualifications to fill board seats, Hervieux-Payette said that given the fact that women comprise the majority of university graduates today, it’s not a question of credentials.

"It's really a barrier of people who don't want to share the power," she said.

"Women have the qualifications. If you look at one sector that has done some homework on this matter, it's the financial sector, the banks. They have more women [on boards] than most of the large corporations in Canada."

Companies working toward gender parity at the board level have seen financial returns for their efforts, she added.

Better gender balance makes companies more attuned to the needs of female customers, she said, “because very often, you have companies who are thinking in terms of men and men only.”

Liberals, NDP, Greens support bill

This is the fourth time the senator has introduced a bill that would impose a quota for women on boards. She said she lowered the minimum for women’s representation from the 50 per cent slated in her original bill after consulting with those behind a similar law in France.

She’s willing to negotiate further on that percentage and the six-year period companies have to reach it, saying she would “strongly support” a 30 per cent quota if it gets Conservatives on side.

Hervieux-Payette said the Liberals, NDP and Greens support her current bill, which a committee will now study after it passed second reading last month.

Even though private member’s bills rarely become law, Hervieux-Payette said that it’s her job as a senator to try to push for change.

"If, as a parliamentarian, I'm not willing to shake up society and bring in new ideas, and [her role was simply to] be a rubber stamp, as far as I'm concerned, this job would be absolutely awful."

You can hear Sen. Céline Hervieux-Payette’s full interview with Laura Lynch this weekend on CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition.