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Senator to renew push for more women on boards

Senator Céline Hervieux-Payette is not giving up on her campaign to win more seats for women on Canada's corporate boards.

The Quebec Liberal has reintroduced a private member's bill in the Senate to create a mandatory rule requiring boards have at least 40 per cent women, or men, within six years of the legislation being enacted.

The proposed legislation compromises on an earlier bill she introduced that failed to win support of the Conservative government. It called for board to have at least 50 per cent women within three years of enactment.

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"My new approach is probably more practical in terms of administration," she said in an interview Wednesday. "I think it's a step in the right direction, and I believe in it. … I decided I wouldn't cave in, and just say, 'Well, it's impossible.' I'm going to continue to push."

The bill faces formidable odds. The Conservative government, which recently won a majority mandate, has made no public pledge to support any quota for board diversity, and private member's Senate bills rarely make their way into law.

Ms. Hervieux-Payette said mandating diversity on boards is becoming a more mainstream idea, especially in Europe where governments are introducing mandatory or voluntary requirements for companies to boost the number of women on boards.

Norway, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy and Belgium have all introduced legislation to increase the number of women on boards. The European Commission last summer called on companies to voluntarily pledge to improve the representation of women on their boards, warning that it might introduce mandatory legislation if there were no satisfactory progress by 2012.

Women comprised 14 per cent of directors on Canada's 500 largest corporate and Crown corporation boards in 2009, according to the advocacy group Catalyst, and only 10 per cent of directors on the boards of publicly traded companies.

In a Senate speech Wednesday, where she introduced the bill for second reading, Ms. Hervieux-Payette said the Conference Board of Canada has concluded it will take 151 years to reach gender parity on Canada's boards at the current pace of change.

"If you find that 151 years equals advancement on reaching parity, we need to review together the definition of advancement," she said in a written copy of her remarks.

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The bill would also amend Canada's business laws to allow shareholders to vote for or against director nominees at annual meetings. Currently, investors can only vote "for" a director or "withhold" their vote, which means directors can be elected with even a minority of support.

Ms. Hervieux-Payette said the voting system is "quite strange" and should be more democratic.

Investor groups have championed the legal change to allow shareholders to defeat a director who does not have majority support.

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Real Estate Reporter

Janet McFarland is the real estate reporter for The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business, with a focus on residential real estate trends. She joined Report on Business in 1995, and has specialized in reporting on corporate governance, executive compensation, pension policy, business law, securities regulation and enforcement of white-collar crime. More

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