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These women are ready, willing and waiting for a seat at the board table

Despite claims to the contrary, Lina Duque, Danielle Dowdy and Ponnam Puri are proof that there are plenty of qualified women looking to join local boards.

Danielle Dowdy, a civilian working with the police who would like to sit on a board, Toronto, Thursday, December 01, 2016.

Eduardo Lima / Metro

Danielle Dowdy, a civilian working with the police who would like to sit on a board, Toronto, Thursday, December 01, 2016.

For years, Lina Duque has hustled for Bay Street businesses, doing everything from consulting to marketing and helping corporate CEOs raise their profile to nab leadership jobs.

Danielle Dowdy traded gigs at General Motors and Procter and Gamble to become a Toronto Police Services analyst. Now she’s tasked with investigating how to improve transparency with the Special Investigations Unit.

Meanwhile, Poonam Puri, an Osgoode Hall Law School professor, made her way into some of the industry’s biggest boys’ clubs, taking seats on engineering and mining boards and juggling similar roles at hospitals.

While their paths to success are different, the three have at least one thing in common. They’re all part of a large group of women willing, qualified and waiting to sit on boards.

They’re the kind of people who can help solve a problem Metro has delved into for the past four weeks — a lack of gender parity on GTA boards.

The three women – and many others like them – disprove persistent claims from companies who say there aren’t enough qualified women ready to serve on boards.

“Women make up 50 per cent of society. There are women in every field you can think of,” says Dowdy, who calls such claims “disingenuous.” “Either they are not looking for women or the people they have internally don’t know where to look.”

Last month, the Canadian Board Diversity Council released its annual list of 50 professionals it recommends for board positions. The list includes men of minorities, but the bulk are women like Puri.

She counts herself among the few “really fortunate” women who haven’t faced difficulty nabbing a seat at the boardroom table, but there are times when she was the lone woman on a board, even after equity organizations and the province began pushing 30 per cent female representation targets.

“Change is slow and it would be ideal if there was more meaningful change,” Puri said. “I think we can do better.”

Lina Duque has worked in marketing, has her own company and has helped other women to develop their profiles on social media.

Eduardo Lima/Metro

Lina Duque has worked in marketing, has her own company and has helped other women to develop their profiles on social media.

Dowdy, a former board member for the Black Business and Professionals Association, agrees.

She once applied to be on a government board, but despite the lack of women on several, she didn’t even get a response after she sent in her application.

In other cases, her gender and experience working with youth have caused people to typecast her and push her towards community-based boards, which have been better at reaching parity than some large corporations.

“It’s the boards that are senior male homogenous that are missing that perspective,” Dowdy said, adding that for someone like her — a young black woman — to get on those boards means facing a trio of challenges.

“You never know which barrier will present itself, but it does."

While Duque, a social media strategist hoping to land a corporate board spot, has noticed sometimes it takes someone championing a woman for her to get on a board, she’s slowly been seeing more women land leadership roles and board spots in part because of Facebook and Twitter.

Duque says at least one woman she’s worked with credits social media for helping her become a hospital CEO and land several board appointments.

“It can be the equalizer. It helps women raise their profile and get the attention of senior executives and other board members,” she said.

Duque stresses she's not putting the onus on women, but on both genders. She also pointed out that a number of studies show companies with higher numbers of female board members outperform male-dominated ones.

“A diverse team will always outperform a homogenous one every time,” Dowdy said. “We can’t solve problems with a single lens… We need to have people from every perspective represented.”

Making progress

Throughout this series, Metro has highlighted local organizations or companies where women are underrepresented at the board level. However, there are a number of boards in the GTA that are approaching – or even exceeding – equal representation.

LCBO: 4/7 (57 per cent)

Pizza Pizza: 3/6 (50 per cent)

Heritage Toronto: 12/26 (46 per cent)

Cadillac Fairview: 5/11 (45 per cent)

United Way Toronto and York Region: 8/18 (44 per cent)

Toronto Police Services Board: 3/7 (43 per cent)

Ryerson University: 8/19 (42 per cent)

Toronto Film Board: 9/22 (40 per cent)

Meanwhile, other companies are instituting policies aimed at increasing the number of women on their boards. Here's what some local firms are doing:

BHP Billiton Ltd. - While many corporations are pledging to meet the province’s recommendation to have 30 per cent women on private boards by 2019, this Anglo-Australian mining company with a Toronto office is taking it a few steps further by vowing to make sure women make up half its workforce by 2025.

Bank of Montreal - BMO launched a mutual fund in April that only invests in North American companies with a female CEO or a board with at least 25 per cent women.

TD Canada Trust - This bank has a program connecting female employees with senior executives in an effort to create mentorship opportunities and help women get leadership positions.

CIBC - CIBC and the Richard Ivey School of Business have partnered to create the ReConnect program, which helps women readjust to the corporate workforce and set career goals after taking time off.

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