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Forget Boardrooms Full of Women

06/06/2013 02:28 EDT | Updated 08/06/2013 05:12 EDT

In a Financial Post piece on Monday, TD Bank Group Deputy Chief Economist Beata Caranci wrote about a report from her bank which concluded that "slow progress in gender board diversity [in Canada] hints of 'market failure.'" In other words, TD Economics thinks that the low number of women on corporate boards in this country is an inefficient outcome that may need government correction.

Many people agree with this notion, including (surprise, surprise) the Ontario government. It has announced plans to create rules that would force companies to either set goals for getting more women on their boards -- or explain why they've failed to do so.

Such schemes are known as "comply or explain" approaches and strike me as both painfully condescending and revealing half-measures. If a government truly believes a matter is serious enough to warrant regulatory involvement, then it should be willing to take the heat of implementing a firm rule. If a government's instinct is to hedge and pussyfoot and treat those who don't comply like silly school children who have forgotten their homework for the third time in a week, then that's probably a good sign that the matter at hand is not one in which it should really be sticking its nose.

The composition of corporate boards falls in the latter category for a couple of reasons.

First, if gender diversity on a board really improves a company's performance, as is often argued, then companies will seek it out themselves without external prodding. Complain as we might about the profit motive, one thing an obsessive fixation on the bottom line is good for is cutting through racial, gender, and cultural prejudices.

As it happens, the evidence for diverse boards causally benefitting business performance is far from overwhelming. Which may explain why the percentage of female board members has long been stalled at 10% in the private sector for publicly traded Canadian companies, while climbing to 42% in Ontario's government agencies, boards, and commissions (where profit is rarely a prime motivator). But should more solid proof emerge of female directors actually offering a competitive advantage, there's every reason to believe public companies will adjust their recruiting and hiring accordingly.

The second reason board composition should be a no-go zone for government is that this is not a clear-cut social justice issue. It is possible that women are underrepresented in boardrooms because they face discrimination (overt and subtle). But it is also possible that women are underrepresented in boardrooms because they are more likely to decide (consciously and unconsciously) that they don't want to be there. I'm sure the reality is a complex interaction between these and other factors. Yet I don't think we're giving enough respect to the notion that women should be able to define success in a more nuanced way than society does without being written off as brainwashed dupes.

Why does being a director of a public company have to be the goal? What if women are more likely than men to see the pinnacle of work bliss as being a well-paying middle management position that allows them the flexibility to teach yoga and do volunteer work on the side? Is it a question of power? And if so, who's to say that the power exercised in a boardroom is any more or less important than the power exercised while exerting pressure on oppressive regimes through Amnesty International or volunteering on a political campaign?

In case you're wondering, I did read Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In. And I do agree with her to a point -- about the ways women inadvertently sabotage themselves and the ways they are perceived differently by their colleagues and bosses. But I also came away from the book with two conclusions: 1) Anyone who wants to reach the highest levels of the professional ranks has to sacrifice a huge amount of home time, personal time, family time, and me time; and 2) Despite all the lip service she gives to women making their own choices, and stay-at-home moms being totally respectable, Sheryl Sandberg clearly views success to mean being a powerful business executive.

There's nothing inherently wrong with either of those things. It's just important to keep them in mind when trying to figure out whether aiming to have equal numbers of males and females in boardrooms makes sense.

It's entirely possible that females are less likely than males to want to make extreme sacrifices -- and not just because they're the ones stuck doing the dishes at home. Because they have a healthier sense of different facets of their identity. Or because they're less caught up in ego wars. Or because they're not stuck with the heavy mental baggage men still carry with them left over from all those years as sole protectors and breadwinners.

I'm glad Sheryl Sandberg equates success with business leadership. We need smart men and women who do. However, for our society to function smoothly, we also need smart men and women who don't. And I'm not convinced that a campaign to recruit more women to Sandberg's view of success is helpful.

How about viewing success as achieving individual fulfillment and contentment? That's not something the provincial government can measure. And because it differs for every person, it would likely mean living with "inequitable" divisions of genders in boardrooms, classrooms, operating rooms, and, more generally, life. From the view of the economists at TD, we'd be surrounded by market failure. Yet it seems to me a much more meaningful, salutary, and sensible goal than attempting to achieve forced gender parity in corporate directorships. At the very least, we'd all be a lot more likely to enjoy the ride.

Canada's Highest-Earning CEOs, 2011