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Special Edition: Blakes Board Report: Big Progress for Women GCs

April 22, 2021
Since we started the study in 2016, there’s been a 66 per cent increase in GCs on boards, and 75 per cent of that growth has been women.
Kathleen Keilty, Partner and Co-Author of the Board Report
Since the launch of our first Blakes Board Report: Opportunities for Women General Counsel five years ago, we’ve seen real progress in the advancement of women GCs to board positions. But there’s still more work to be done. In this special edition of our podcast, Partners Kathleen Keilty and Stacy McLean, who co-authored the study along with Senior Strategic Advisor Alison Jeffrey, share some of the positive results from our analysis and highlight areas for improvement.


Mathieu: Hi, I’m Mathieu Rompré. Welcome to a special edition of the Blakes Continuity podcast. Today, I am joined by my colleague and producer of this podcast, Yula Economopoulos.
Yula Thanks, Mathieu. I’m glad to be here for today’s episode, a must for anyone interested in gender diversity in the context of companies’ boards.
Mathieu: That’s right, we will focus our attention on the most recent edition of the Women’s Board Report. To discuss its findings, we are joined by Kathleen Keilty and Stacy McLean, both Blakes Partners, who co-authored the Report with Senior Strategic Advisor Alison Jeffrey.
Mathieu: Kathleen, the results of the 2020 Blakes Board Report show big increases in the representation of women GCs on boards. Can you talk a little bit about the progress that’s been made? Are we there?
Kathleen Since we started the study in 2016, there’s actually been a 66 per cent increase in GCs on the boards of the S&P/TSX composite, and of that increase, 75 per cent of them, of the growth, has been with women. Of the 198 companies that are in our study, 154 of them don’t yet have a GC on the board — that’s 70 per cent of the companies don’t have a GC on the board — so there’s plenty of opportunity in there.
And, you know, other studies show that the numbers of women on boards is as low as 15 to17 per cent.
And, of course, there’s diversity opportunities in terms of racial and ethnic diversity where there’s lots of opportunity for change and increase.
Mathieu: And what do you think is the biggest reason for the shift we are seeing right now that you just mentioned?
Kathleen: So, I don’t think there’s just one reason for this positive shift in momentum. I think it’s a number of factors.
  • We’ve got social movements looking for systemic change.
  • We have pension funds and proxy advisory firms with voting guidelines that impact how issuers are governing their companies.
  • We have new investment funds that are restricting their investments to companies that meet certain ESG targets and that access to capital is having an influence on how our issuers are behaving.
  • We have the CBCA in 2019 putting out the regulations requiring public disclosure of how boards are doing in these areas.
  • We have stock exchange requirements that are likewise having an influence.
Mathieu: Given the strength of the GC value proposition, do you think the numbers will continue to increase?
Kathleen: I think there is a general recognition of the business imperative of adding diversity to the board — that it has a positive impact on businesses. When looking to meet targets for women on boards, GCs are a natural go-to. There’s a pipeline of qualified women who can add to the diversity of boards. They have governance experience, they understand risk, they have knowledge of the complex regulatory background that issuers are facing.
But not only that, they have experience in making strategic decisions and understand operational aspects of the business as well. They really bring a lot of value to the boards, and people are starting to recognize that, and we’re just gaining momentum. And you combine that with the fact that women are starting to step up and put their names forward for these opportunities as well.
I think all of those factors go into why we’re seeing this trend towards more women GCs on boards.
Mathieu: Some might say that gender diversity has momentum right now, but the question is, is it going to last?
Kathleen: So, that’s where I go back to the factors that I think are influencing here, where you’ve got access to capital being tied to positive change on the gender and social diversity sides. As long as that access to capital is restricted, I think we’re looking at a, not just a short-term trend but a long-term change.
Yula: Stacy, are there certain industries where women GCs are more prevalent, and which industries do you think might need a little nudge?
Stacy: So, women GCs are most prevalent on boards in energy and banking insurance, perhaps not surprisingly because they are heavily regulated. Interestingly, the material sector had the most number of GCs on their boards and was the third industry where women GCs were most prevalent.
But despite these successes, there’s still so much opportunity. As Kathleen noted, 154 of the companies in the study sample that we had do not have a GC on their board, including none in the hotel leisure, health pharma and communication-services sectors, so that’s 70 per cent do not have a GC on the board, and that’s a great area for opportunity.
Then turning to the pipeline, you know, where are the women GCs that we can start looking to put in these positions? Progress has also been slow for the number of women in-house leaders in Canada on public companies. Only 36 per cent of in-house leaders are women — that’s just a four per cent increase in the number of women in-house leaders from 2019. And this is particularly striking when you consider that almost 60 per cent of in-house leaders have been appointed within the last five years, and yet women only comprise one-third of these leadership roles.
In terms of different sectors, the highest number of women in-house leaders are found in real estate, financial services and consumer discretionary industries, and interestingly and proportionately, there are more women in-house leaders in communications and health care at 67 per cent and 57 per cent, respectively. The tech sector had no women in-house leaders in our study which may explain why there’s a lack of women GCs on boards in that sector.
Yula: Thanks, Stacy. Very interesting. So, what tips would you give women GCs who would like to join a board but aren’t sure what steps to take.
Stacy: So, first thing, work on developing and articulating your value proposition. You know, you’re really working on that elevator pitch, one to two minutes, for why you would be a great board member. Secondly, I’d get your board résumé ready. That’s different than a regular résumé and really needs to focus on the skillset that you could bring to the board table. Do the work and research on, you know, what you need to do to be a board member, whether or not that’s formal or informal training, all of it really does help.
And then get out there with both of these. Make your intentions known to all of your contacts, internally at your organization and externally, and keep building and broadening your networks. The opportunities are going to come.
And then just be really strategic about the best opportunities that you can find before you accept an opportunity. Being on a board, whether or not its for profit or not-for-profit, takes time and energy to do it well, and these are multi-year commitments, so you want to ensure you choose the opportunities where you feel like you can really contribute and where you’re going to enjoy your time on the board.
Mathieu: Thank you, Kathleen and Stacy. Listeners, if you’d like to receive a copy of the board report, visit our website at To learn more about our women’s initiatives, check out our Diversity & Inclusion page on our website.
Yula: Until next time, stay well and stay safe.

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