Young Businesswoman Addressing Boardroom Meeting

Experts are still divided on how best to ensure greater gender parity on corporate boards and in senior leadership positions, yet the speed of progress appears to be increasing.

There is a large supply of woman who are qualified to occupy board seats. Likewise, companies say they have demand for more women in these roles, says Beatrix Dart, professor and executive director of the Initiative for Women in Business at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, who spoke at the International Woman’s Day #PressforProgress event at Rotman.

Despite this supply and demand, companies still struggle to reach greater gender parity. That’s partly because leaders often return to old, comfortable networks when filling positions, Dart says.

One solution for this problem might be enforcing gender quotas, but the idea is met with resistance from many senior leaders. Women, in particular, are slow to embrace quotas because of the potential for backlash, says Lindsay Patrick, director of global ETF strategy at Toronto-based RBC Capital Markets. Many women fear that colleagues will perceive their career success as the result of enforced quotas.

Utilizing other pressure points would be more rewarding, Patrick says.

On the other hand, Dart notes that France was initially resistant to enforcing gender quotas on the boards of large companies, but that initiative has since been met with success.

Toronto-based pension fund manager OMERS is one organization that has increased the number of women in senior leadership roles without enforcing quotas.

“We said it would be a shame if as an organization we didn’t tap the widest possible talent pool globally,” says Satish Rai, chief investment officer at OMERS’ capital markets division. “Fifty percent of the population in Canada are women. So, we simply said when we hire people we want the broadest representation.”

OMERS’ board is now comprised of 28% women. In senior positions at OMERS’ capital markets’ division, women have gone from fulfilling 0% of roles to 35% in the past two and a half years.

Now when hiring for senior positions, OMERS ensures that every final round of interviews is comprised of at least one woman and at least one man.

On Thursday, Toronto-based RBC Global Asset Management will launch a gender-focused ETF that aims to move the needle on gender equality in the workplace.

RBC Vision Women’s Leadership MSCI Canada Index ETF seeks to replicate the performance of the MSCI Canada IMI Women’s Leadership Select Index, which is comprised of nearly 100 companies across all sectors of the Canadian market.

“Canada still lags behind other developed countries in the world in terms of where our women on boards are,” Patrick says. “It’s time we have a solution and a positive incentive to bring Canadian corporates to that table. And that’s what we’re hoping this [ETF] will do.”

To qualify for inclusion in the index, companies must have three women on the board (or 30%). Alternatively, a company can have two women on a board, but they also must have one woman in a senior leadership position.