News / Toronto

Double glass ceiling: Women of colour underrepresented on Toronto boards

With women occupying only a fraction of corporate and municipal board seats across the GTA, minority women are even harder to spot.

Towa Beer has sat on small boards in the past but now can't find a spot on other boards.

Eduardo Lima / Metro Order this photo

Towa Beer has sat on small boards in the past but now can't find a spot on other boards.

Towa Beer’s resume is sprinkled with names that would make most people envious.

The Toronto woman has nabbed jobs with provincial government ministries and agencies along with multi-million dollar charities like the Heart and Stroke Foundation. She’s run her own businesses, fundraised hundreds of thousands of dollars and counted Nike, Mercedes Benz, basketball star Steve Nash and famed songstress Alicia Keys among her clients.

But even after decades of high-profile experience in the arts and social entrepreneurship, the one thing Beer has had trouble landing is a seat in the boardroom.

“Every board I look at is full of men,” says Beer, who only once held a board spot years ago. “Not only do I have to prove that I am valuable as a female but as a person of colour.”

She’s not alone. With women occupying only a fraction — less than 30 per cent overall according to a Metro analysis — of corporate and municipal board seats across the GTA, minority women are even harder to spot among the faces at decision-making tables.

“When you map diversity in places of power and privilege in the city, the picture is not that pretty,” says Sen. Ratna Omidvar. “The barriers that apply to women apply to minority women, but there is a double glass ceiling for minority women.”

More women on boards:

That double glass ceiling exists partly because women and minorities are qualified for many board positions, but don’t have the same networks as the predominately white male board members who are called on for nominations when spots become available, says Omidvar, who has served on at least a dozen boards.

She helped launch DiverseCity OnBoard, a program that has placed more than 700 people from underrepresented communities on boards. But, she still sits on boards where she is the only minority.

Se. Ratna Omidvar helped launch DiverseCity OnBoard, a program that has placed more than 700 people on boards.

Torstar News Service

Se. Ratna Omidvar helped launch DiverseCity OnBoard, a program that has placed more than 700 people on boards.

“What I object to is when people say there are no women of colour who can sit on this board,” she says. “That’s when I get completely crazy and I always say, ‘give me two days and I will give you a list.’”

Not every board is chosen with recommendations. Some have open application processes, but Beer says they’re seldom advertised.

“The only time I hear about them being open is after they’ve been filled ... then people say ‘how come you didn’t apply?’ and I say, ‘Well, I didn’t know,” Beer says. “The process to applying or being accepted to these boards is not very transparent.”

Her frustration at the lack of transparency is exacerbated when people “pigeonhole” her by recommending she serve on the boards of minuscule community organizations near Jane and Finch or Rexdale.

“Why couldn’t it be on Bay Street? Why couldn’t it be for a bank? Why does it have to be relegated to a neighbourhood that is ‘at-risk?’” she questions. “What they’re saying is ‘not in my community, not in my backyard. Yes, your skill sets are great, but we can’t find any use for them here, because we don’t represent black people.’”

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Sonya Rathee, who works in the banking industry and is of East Indian descent, is in the interview process for two boards and said she hasn’t heard anything discriminatory.

While she doesn’t know if her experience is typical, she feels her gender has a more of an impact than her ethnicity.

“I feel like if I was a white guy, I could probably walk in and get a role more easily,” she says.

While she would like to see more women and minorities on boards, Rathee and Omidvar agree females from underrepresented communities shouldn’t just be given spots because of their race or sex. Instead, it should be because they’re experienced and worthy of the job.

“It’s important not to think of the colour of people as a competency,” Omidvar says. “There are (minorities and women) who have just as much wisdom as other people but just need someone to open the board to them.”

How do other Toronto companies and organizations fare when it comes to gender equality?

As part of the #WomenOnBoards series, Metro analyzed the split between women and men on hundreds of private and public boards in the city of Toronto. The problem is obvious in industries ranging from the arts to construction. These are just some examples of what we saw:

University Health Network

Women on board: 6/22

The network’s board represents Toronto Western, Toronto General and Princess Margaret Hospital. “As Board members’ terms come to an end, diversity in all its forms is a significant matter considered by the Board of Trustees Governance and Nominating Committee,” Gillian Howard, the network’s vice-president of public affairs said in a statement to Metro.

She pointed out that some members are appointed by the University of Toronto or by physicians who serve on UHN medical committees but did not elaborate on what was being done to increase diversity.

Maple Leaf Foods

Women on board: 2/8

A statement from the company said Maple Leaf Foods “strongly supports the principle of boardroom diversity, of which gender is one important aspect.” It pointed out 25 per cent of its independent directors are women and said it looks “forward to continuing to

improve our overall diversity,” but didn't indicate what it was doing to make that happen.

Blackberry

Women on board: 2/8

Blackberry would only confirm the names of its board members and declined further comment.

Sirius XM Canada

Women on board: 2/8

The company declined Metro’s request for comment.

Sleep Country Canada

Women on board: 2/9

Sleep Country’s response to Metro highlighted that Christine Magee co-founded the company around values including equal opportunity and diversity. A spokesperson said, “our board composition is reviewed on an annual basis and we will continue to ensure that it reflects the core values that have made us successful” but did not mention if any plans were in the works to get more women involved. 

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