Diversity and Meritocracy: What Tradeoff?

As of January 2015, most publicly listed companies on the Toronto Stock Exchange are required to disclose details of their board diversity policy or to explain why they do not have a policy. The ‘comply or explain’ regulation reflects the latest in a spate of regulations introduced across global financial markets to encourage gender diversity in the boardroom. As the proxy circulars came filing in this spring, it became quickly apparent that many companies are held back by the perceived trade-off between selecting qualified candidates and incorporating diversity criteria.

To be sure, some companies, particularly in the finance, real estate and utilities sectors, have made great strides on board diversity. But outside of these sectors, companies could easily be mistaken for relics of the Feminine Mystique era of the 1950s. One sector that stands out in particular as a laggard is oil and gas. According to the 2014 Canadian Board Diversity Council survey, of the 608 directors in the sector, 9.7% or 65 are women. To be fair, the limited number of female candidates with experience in the sector presents a challenge for recruitment, as many companies explain. But a closer look at the explanations provided in proxy circulars reveals a much deeper form of resistance to diversity.

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