01/13/2015 12:01 EST | Updated 03/14/2015 05:59 EDT

Gender equality on corporate boards: Study puts Canada in middle of the pack

Canada is in the middle of the global pack when it comes to gender parity on corporate boards, new research suggests.

A study by non-profit group Catalyst says 20.8 per cent of board seats at companies listed on the S&P/TSX 60 index were held by women as of October 2014.

Catalyst is an international non-profit that promotes the development of women in business.

In late 2013, the Ontario Securities Commission surveyed about 1,000 companies listed on the TSX in regards to gender diversity. Of 448 responses, 57 per cent had no women directors. Twenty-eight per cent had only one woman director, and 91 per cent had no policy for identifying and nominating female directors.

New methodology

Catalyst has changed its methodology from previous years, when it measured the share of women leading Canadian companies listed in the Financial Post 500. That means this year’s data isn’t comparable to previous years.

“We changed it with a view to creating a global story, so that Canada can position itself in a global context,” said Alex Johnston, executive director of Catalyst Canada.

In the future, Johnston said Catalyst will be able to compare annual progress towards gender parity in a number of different countries.

Canada’s global position

In the U.S., Catalyst found 19.2 per cent of board seats were occupied by women among companies listed on the S&P 500 index.

The discrepancy between sample sizes means the Canadian and U.S. numbers aren’t directly comparable, but they still offer a snapshot of corporate gender parity in different countries.

Canada has a slightly higher percentage of women in the boardrooms of top public firms than Germany, Spain, or Switzerland, and a slightly lower percentage than The Netherlands, Denmark, or the U.K. Among the countries surveyed for the Catalyst report, Norway came closest to gender parity, with 35.5 per cent of corporate board seats held by women. Japan ranked lowest, with just 3.1 per cent.

“The Scandinavian countries and parts of Europe embraced quotas, and that’s a completely legitimate approach,” Johnston said.

Other countries have adopted different strategies for addressing the gender imbalance in corporate leadership, including regulation and voluntary compliance.

In the U.K, Johnston said proposed gender quotas were met with resistance from the business community. Ultimately, the country took a voluntary approach. Johnston said it’s working, and it mirrors an overall global movement towards gender equality.

“I think that there’s been a shift that is a permanent shift,” she said. “I think people are increasingly aggressive now about going out there and identifying existing talent and creating opportunities for those individuals. I do think that we will be in a better place in two or three years. I think we’ll be in a much better place in five years.”

New regulatory rules for diversity

Starting this year, the Ontario Securities Commission adopted rules requiring companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange to disclose the number of women sitting on boards and holding executive positions. Companies must also disclose any policies related to women on their boards, as well as information about how the board considered gender representation when selecting directors.

“Even though the [OSC regulations] just came into effect, the fact that they published draft regulations even a year ago was significant,” said Johnston. "As soon as people saw those regulations, they looked at them and said, this issue’s not going away.”

Better performance through diversity

More women on corporate boards results in measurably increased corporate performance, according to Catalyst.

Johnston said there’s a clear business case for diverse corporate boards, but said simple common sense makes the case just as well.

“It’s making sure that you’ve got people with different experiences and perspectives around the table wrestling with often very complex issues,” she said. “You want to make sure those people do not all think, act, look, talk, analyze alike.”

Almost 80 per cent of corporate directors said boardroom diversity leads to increased value for shareholders, according to a 2012 survey of U.S. corporate boards by executive consulting firm Spencer Stuart and Corporate Board Member magazine.