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Is glass ceiling bulletproof? Finding women in the boardrooms of Manitoba businesses is no easy task

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Cynthia Thomas is used to being the lone woman in the boardroom -- first working for Scotiabank's investment arm setting up financing deals for mining companies and now as an independent consultant and director for mines all over the world.

She is also alone in Manitoba.

Thomas is the only woman to chair the board of any publicly traded company operating in the province.

And it is no surprise to her that the paucity of women in corporate boardrooms hit the headlines for the umpteenth time this week, thanks to another round of reports lamenting the private sector's unwillingness to tackle the issue of gender parity and a move by the Ontario government to crack down on the problem.

The proportion of women on corporate boards in Canada hovers near 10 per cent. Progress has stalled.

"It's abysmal," said Thomas, who heads the board of Victory Nickel, which has three mining prospects in northern Manitoba. "And it hasn't changed any."

If Canada's record is abysmal, Manitoba's is worse.

In fact, the total number of women on corporate boards in Manitoba could fit comfortably into the first row of a small movie theatre.

There are 43 public companies with headquarters or major operations in Manitoba whose stocks are listed daily in the Winnipeg Free Press. Those include many household names -- New Flyer, Great West Life, the NorthWest Company -- as well as several small mining and biotech firms.

Of the roughly 280 members of those boards, only 17 are women, according to a Free Press analysis. That's six per cent, well below the national average.

The vast majority of Manitoba companies have no women at all on their boards, including some of the province's top firms -- Buhler Industries, Cangene, Pollard Banknote and FP Newspapers, the company that owns the Free Press.

Those all-male boards include many of Manitoba's heavy hitters. Jerry Gray, the former dean of the Asper School of Business and an expert on leadership and human resources, sits on two major boards with no women, as does Robert Chipman, the patriarch of the family behind the Winnipeg Jets. Bill Fraser, the former president and CEO of MTS, sits on one all-male board.

Manitoba's remarkable shortage of female directors disheartened even key Manitoba businesswomen, several of whom said they knew it was bad, just not single-digits bad.

"I would say that number is too low," said Ashleigh Everett, president of Royal Canadian Securities and one of three female directors of MTS. "It's not anywhere near enough."

And, outside the big Manitoba companies with national reach, there appears to be very little move to improve the gender diversity on homegrown corporate boards and little discussion of the problem.

A recent report by TD Economics suggests two reasons Canada is falling so far behind other countries when it comes to gender parity, and those reasons could hold especially true for Manitoba.

First, the province is still dominated by resource-based companies in the mining, agriculture and oil-and-gas sector. Those continue to be male-dominated fields, limiting the pool of directors with the right set of skills and experience.

TD pointed to statistics suggesting, on a national level, energy and mining companies have among the lowest share of board seats held by women, and only one-fifth of their staffs are female.

"Lower representation of women on resource-sector boards is perhaps not surprising given that there is a thinner pipeline of women with industry-specific knowledge," said TD.

That's not what Thomas sees. In the mining industry, she has spotted no shortage of women with legal training, experience in senior finance or auditing jobs or specialized technical skills who would make excellent board members. She called it a "great frustration" that those women often get overlooked.

"There are some women who don't want to be the token woman on a board," said Thomas. "I say, 'bring it on.' "

Proof may lie with the province, which seems to have no trouble finding qualified women. Manitoba has among the highest proportion of female cabinet ministers in the country. And, averaged out, it's reached full gender parity on the nearly 200 boards and commissions that operate at arm's length from government, including the boards of all the Crown corporations such as Manitoba Public Insurance. (The outlier is the province's biggest Crown, Manitoba Hydro, whose board has only two female members.)

A second reason could be Manitoba's size. TD's report suggests Canada has been slow to improve gender parity on its corporate boards because it simply has fewer big firms with big boards. Larger companies, under more public scrutiny, tend to be more progressive in corporate governance, have more resources to recruit board members and have made strides in finding female directors. TD found Canadian firms with less than $1 billion in revenues have, on average, three fewer board members than those with revenues in excess of that threshold.

In Manitoba, only a tiny handful of publicly traded companies would meet that threshold, suggesting the size of our corporate culture slows progress on gender parity.

That rings true for Everett, who also sits on Scotiabank's board. In the last decade, she's seen major improvements in board governance, where, in the wake of major scandals such as Enron, boards have become smaller and more professional, less rubber-stamp, more hands-on.

At MTS, the board has moved to a more systematic method of recruiting directors based on skills gaps. To put it crudely, it's no longer about who has drinks with whom after a round of golf. It's now about a list of skills the board needs, perhaps someone with expertise in risk management or technology. That list drives recruitment, forcing boards to look beyond the usual suspects.

Everett says big companies tend to be more pioneering when it comes to good corporate governance, and she is optimistic that, as smaller boards catch up, women will benefit from a more skills-based approach to board recruitment.

But Everett said one women is nowhere near enough to make a notable difference in the tone and content of board discussions.

"There's that saying -- one woman is token. Two, you're getting there. Three, you're a voice."

Last year, Catalyst Canada, a research and advocacy group that lobbies for more women in senior business roles, asked companies to sign a pledge promising boards made up of 25 per cent women by 2017.

MTS is the only Manitoba firm to sign the pledge -- an easy move since its board is already 30 per cent female. If every Manitoba company followed suit, it would mean quadrupling the number of female directors in four years.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 1, 2013 B4

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