10/09/2013 10:48 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Corporate board database expands number of qualified women, minorities

TORONTO - After conquering the male-dominated mining industry, Dominique Dionne is hoping for a spot on one of the country's top corporate boards.

The former vice-president of corporate affairs at Xstrata Nickel will be listed in the Canadian Board Diversity Council's database, a tool to help directors find qualified women and visible minorities to fill board seats.

Now entering its second year, the Diversity 50 database is adding 50 new candidates, effectively doubling in size. Last year, six of its candidates were elected to board-level positions.

"There are a lot of board members at the top 500 companies that will be retiring in the next five years, and I think it's a great opportunity," says Dionne, who lives in Toronto.

"The timing is really, really perfect right now. But it needs to start with the boards considering more candidates."

Women fill only about 10 per cent of the seats on the boards of Canadian public companies, a number that has all but stagnated over the past decade.

In July, the Ontario Securities Commission issued a call for comments on a proposed disclosure rule to boost the number of women on boards. It suggested that all companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange be required to give the proportion of women on their boards and in senior management roles.

The Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan, in its response, urged the regulator to take a further step — make it mandatory for all public companies to have at least three female directors or face being delisted from the exchange. The pension fund argued a voluntary option will have little, if any, impact.

Pamela Jeffery, founder of the Canadian Board Diversity Council, said one of the challenges to increasing diversity on boards is getting chairmen to look beyond their backyard.

"It's perpetuating the lack of women in board rooms," she said. "They need to recruit beyond their own networks."

Companies also look for candidates with chief executive experience — a level few women have reached in corporate Canada.

"Boards need to recognize that there's a big pool that's untapped, and they need to be bold enough to say 'We don't need to recruit former CEOs," said Jeffery.

Dionne agrees. She said women can bring new perspectives to board and that can lead to better decision making and improve a company's bottom line.

"Boards really need to be better informed, to be able to look at all of the angles ... and to have more connections - not only the same connections from the same group of people, but to really expand their network," she says.

Last year, chairman Claude Dussault began the hunt for a new director for the insurance firm Intact Financial (TSX:IFC).

Dussault wanted a candidate who would improve the board's diversity, but also possessed a very specific set of skills.

The Diversity 50 database helped Dussault identify several qualified candidates. In the end, the candidate that the company settled on — Janet De Silva — was someone who Dussault already knew, but whom he hadn't expected to be available because she was living overseas.

"I would not have thought of her otherwise," says Dussault. "Through the list she sent the message that she would be willing to do that - to sit on a Canadian board while living in Hong Kong."

Dussault says he would turn to the database again.

"I think to have the best talent you need to be identifying people in the broadest pool possible."