Opinion: When companies stop claiming “meritocracy,” says all-male boards, women move on

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Canadian companies began to seriously tackle the issue of gender diversity in the spring of 2015, when Canadian securities regulators forced them to do so.

Igor Kutyaev / iStockPhoto / Getty Images

When it comes to putting women in management and on boards, there are companies that are leaders and there are companies that are lagging behind. And for several years, the companies that followed the peloton often had a rather deleterious explanation: it was all about “meritocracy”.

Sounds good on the surface. But diversity advocates have long recognized the argument as an excuse for guy-dominated boards. The companies that have talked the most about the “merit” philosophy have put it into practice by preventing women from helping make their most important decisions.

The good news is that a number of offenders realized that their practices and language had to change, and as they added women to the leadership, they struck the word “meritocracy” from their messages to shareholders. But there’s always bad news: The explanation is still used, especially by companies that haven’t been able to find more than one woman – or even just one – to sit on their board.

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The genesis of today’s column is a 2017 opinion piece published in The Globe and Mail by Professors Aaron Dhir and Sarah Kaplan on gender diversity on boards. They noted that a company without a woman on its board of directors put it this way: “The board will not compromise the principles of a meritocracy by imposing … targets for the representation of women on the board of directors. administration ”.

In the Canadian way, the professors were too polite to identify the company, so I went on Google to identify the violator. But I found not one but many companies using the exact same loaded phrase as to why they didn’t want to set goals or quotas.

However, I am not polite, and it has always been my goal to name names. And over time, my informal study revealed which companies have now withdrawn from the language – and which are sticking to the script.

Canadian companies began to seriously tackle the issue of gender diversity in the spring of 2015, when Canadian securities regulators forced them to do so. As part of the “Comply or Explain” policy, companies were required to disclose their representation policies or goals, or explain why they did not have one.

According to my research of the Canadian Business Filings Database, nearly two dozen companies, almost all located in the Alberta oilfield, filed proxy circulars this first year that used the phrase ” compromise the principles of meritocracy ”.

It’s almost as if a group of business lawyers gathered in a boardroom in early 2015 and put pen to paper for a unified response. Title deposits aren’t bestselling novels – no one will be prosecuted for plagiarism if they rip off someone else’s turn of phrase, and companies apparently borrow language they like quite frequently. But how all of these companies came to the same moving defense of meritocracy may remain a mystery, as few of the companies that survive today – 11 of them – answered my question about how language came to be. appear in their documents.

PraireSky Royalty Ltd. used the language of 2015 – when women directors made up 20 percent of the board – until 2018. It hit it in 2019 by adopting a diversity policy on the board and setting a target of 25 percent female directors by 2021., a goal he has now achieved.

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In a written response, COO Cam Proctor said PrairieSky did not hire an outside consultant for the language. Mr. Proctor said that as PrairieSky has grown since its founding in 2014, “the board has also evolved to include… a gender balance that more closely reflects our larger organization”.

Tourmaline Oil Corp., Black Diamond Group Ltd., Whitecap Resources Inc., Mullen Group Ltd. and Peyto Exploration & Development Corp. had all-male boards in 2015, when they first spoke about compromising the principles of meritocracy. Alaris Equity Partners Income Trust had a woman. All abandoned this specific language from 2017 to 2021, and all except Peyto now have at least two women on the board, or 20 to 33% of the members. Representatives from Black Diamond, Whitecap and Alaris responded to my questions with their thoughts on diversity, while Tourmaline and Mullen did not respond to emails.

The only female director of Peyto represents 14% of its board of directors. In an interview, Peyto CEO Darren Gee said the company does not want to expand its board of directors because it has advanced cost controls and is proud of its anti-discrimination policy.

“It doesn’t serve anyone’s goal to choose an inferior person for a position just because a certain race or gender is represented,” Mr. Gee said. “When you’re looking for the right people with the right qualifications, there shouldn’t be any other criteria. There should be no discrimination against anyone.

Perpetual Energy Inc. is an outlier: it had two women on its board in 2015, good for 25%, but now, after removing the language, it has one woman on a five-person board.

Three of the 11 companies still use “compromise principles” language: Advantage Energy Ltd., Magellan Aerospace Corp. and Gear Energy Ltd. These companies had only one or no women on their board of directors in 2015; all now have a single woman on their seven-member boards. At Advantage, the proportion of women has actually declined since 2015, as the board of directors has grown. None of the three answered my questions.

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And then there are those who looked at this language and decided to take it up again after its debut. A quick search for contemporary use revealed that Calgary-based Persta Resources Inc. and Canacol Energy Ltd. were using it this year, with Persta adopting it in 2019. Neither company has a woman in it. its board of directors, and neither company answered my questions. .

Maybe they all think the language speaks for itself. The evidence backs it up – companies that still emphasize “meritocracy” perpetuate corporate human-ocracy, which leads to mediocrity.

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