OTTAWA — The Liberal government hopes that proposed legislation requiring publicly traded companies to disclose the gender composition of their corporate boards and senior management will lead to greater diversity, but will consider imposing specific targets if the new measures don't work.
"We want to send a clear signal that diversity is important and you need to explain what your diversity policies are and we feel that will start moving the needle," Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains said in an interview Wednesday, adding that changes happened when the United Kingdom and Australia brought in voluntary measures.
"But in a few years, if we don't see progress — in a few years, if we don't see meaningful results — then we will re-evaluate our position and look at all other options at that time," Bains said.
Last month, the Liberal government introduced Bill C-25, which would, among other things, amend the Canadian Business Corporations Act to require publicly traded companies to disclose to their shareholders the number of women on their corporate boards and in senior management, as well as their policies on diversity — or explain why they do not have any.
The Canadian Business Corporations Act affects nearly 270,000 companies, but these changes would only affect those that also issue shares and report to a securities commission — including about 600 companies on the Toronto Stock Exchange, a government official said last month.
The bill, developed following consultations that began under the previous Conservative government, came up for a second reading debate in the House of Commons on Wednesday.
The legislation will not include targets, which is something that Catalyst, an international non-profit organization that pushes for the advancement of women in the workplace, has been calling for as the most effective way to improve the numbers.
"The rationale is simple: it's impossible to measure progress without first having something to measure it against," Deborah Gillis, president and CEO of Catalyst, wrote in the foreword to a June report on the issue.
The Ontario government adopted that recommendation, setting a gender diversity target for businesses to have 30 per cent of their directors be women by 2017 and 40 per cent by 2019.
There is a long way to go.
The Catalyst report showed that in 2014, women filled 20.8 per cent of the board positions at Canadian stock index companies.
The Canadian Securities Administrators, which represents provincial securities regulators, has said that despite new rules in 10 participating jurisdictions that are aimed at improving corporate gender equity at companies traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange, women occupied only 12 per cent of the positions last year.
And of the 677 companies included in the sample, the review found that 45 per cent of them did not have a single woman board member.
Bains said the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is doing what it can to set a good example in the public sector, such as committing to gender parity in cabinet.
"We also wanted to send a clear message to corporate Canada, to businesses, that look, diversity is good for business and we need you to step up and show leadership," Bains said.
He acknowledged, however, that even his own department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development has work to do.
More than half the members of the Science, Technology and Innovation Council are women, but two boards within the portfolio —the Competition Tribunal and the Copyright Board — have no women among their combined total of seven positions.
"We know government can and must do better," he said.
The Canadian record on gender equity also came under some international scrutiny on Wednesday, as the World Economic Forum released a report showing that Canada was ranked 35 on the overall global index, sharing a first-place ranking when it comes to educational attainment, but coming in 36th place for economic participation and opportunity.
Bains said promoting diversity and increasing the number of women on corporate boards is the right thing to do, but it can also have a positive impact on the bottom line.
"Innovation is all about having diversity of thoughts, ideas and perspectives," Bains said.