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Diversonomics | Season 2 Episode 3 - A seat at the table: It’s time for women to get on boards

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September 29, 2017

The glass ceiling is real and many women are finding it hard to fight against the perception that there simply aren’t enough qualified women to fill senior positions and sit on boards. We caught up with Gowling WLG partner Lorraine Mastersmith, who gave us a few great tips on how women can use their connections and champions to break into the boardroom.

Episode tip

"You have to decide whether it’s something you’re interested in doing. If it is, then make connections with people who are on existing boards. Ask them how they got there…” — Lorraine Mastersmith, partner at Gowling WLG

Resources

Episode hosts

Roberto Aburto

Roberto Aburto is an associate in Gowling WLG's Ottawa office, practising in municipal law and civil litigation, with a focus on real estate disputes, land use planning law and commercial litigation.

He is also an active member in the swimming and lifesaving community, serving on the board of directors for the Lifesaving Society (Ontario Branch) as the corporate secretary/legal adviser, and on the Lifesaving Society (National Branch) National Team Selection Committee for Lifesaving Sport.

He is also co-chair of Gowling WLG's Diversity and Inclusion Council and is committed to promoting these principles.

To learn more about Roberto, visit his bio or connect with him on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Sarah Willis

Sarah Willis is an associate in Gowling WLG's Ottawa office, practising in the areas of commercial and civil litigation, and medical defence law. Sarah also has ecommercial and civil litigation experience in a variety of areas, including contractual and construction law disputes, tort actions, and small claims court claims. While in law school, Sarah was an oralist in the 2013 Willms and Shier Environmental Law Moot competition, sat as an executive on the Women and Law Association, and was the vice-president of the class of 2013 council in her final year.

To learn more about Sarah, visit her bio or connect with her on LinkedIn.

Episode guest

Lorraine Mastersmith

Lorraine Mastersmith is a partner in Gowling WLG’s Corporate Commercial Group, based in the firm’s Ottawa office. Her practice focuses largely on corporate and securities law, with an emphasis on assisting emerging and established companies across a variety of sectors — from information and communications technology to live video production and social impact companies.

To learn more about Lorraine, visit her bio or connect with her on LinkedIn.

 

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Podcast transcript

Sarah:         Welcome to Diversonomics. The podcast about diversity and inclusion from Gowling WLG. I’m your co-host, Sarah, practicing in commercial litigation and professional liability in the Gowling WLG Ottawa office.

Roberto: And, also from Gowling WLG Ottawa, I am your co-host, Roberto Aburto, practicing in municipal law. We’re very pleased to welcome our very own Lorraine Mastersmith today, who is a partner, also in the Ottawa practicing in corporate and securities law. When she came and joined Gowling WLG I was really excited to see her enter into our diverse and inclusion network. Lorraine sits as a regional ambassador on the Regional Ambassador Council for Ottawa of “Women Get on Board” which is a member based company that connects, promotes and empowers women to corporate boards. Welcome Lorraine. Thanks for joining us today.

Lorraine:      Thank you very much. I’m happy to be here.

Roberto: The thing that we all have in common here today, aside from diversity and inclusion, is the Laurier connection. We’re all Golden Hawks who did our undergraduates at Wilfrid Laurier University.

Lorraine:      Are we really?

Sarah:         I didn’t realize that.

Lorraine:      That’s awesome.

Sarah:         That is awesome.

Roberto: Very great to see all the Golden Hawks getting involved in the diversity inclusion context.

Lorraine:      There you go.

Roberto: Lorraine, can you tell our listeners a little bit about your career path?

Lorraine:      Sure. I started practicing law in 1993. I articled at Perley-Robertson in ’93. Then after articled started in a small firm of 5 lawyers. I was the only female lawyer in that firm. I joined Mitel Corporation in 1999 advising their supply chain and operations division. That division was subsequently sold to a company called Breckenridge in 2001 and I became general counsel and corporate secretary at Breckenridge. I was there from about 2001 until 2008. In 2008 I decided that it was time for me to come back to private practice and give that another go. I became an income partner at Perley-Robertson from 2008 until 2016, when I joined Gowlings here, just in December.

Roberto: What made you specifically interested in gender equity issues?

Lorraine:      It’s funny. When I was in law school my class was over 50% women. But then when I joined the workforce that just didn’t seem to be the case. When I articled my articling group was 50% women but then as I progressed through my first position in a law firm I was the only woman that was a lawyer. In my experience as I progressed into different more senior positions in the corporate world, in my in house role, that’s where I got real exposure to the disparity between males and females at the executive levels and in the boardroom. I was the vice-president and corporate secretary at Breckenridge and so I was always the only woman in the boardroom at board meetings. And only one of two women in any sort of executive level meetings at the company. It started to bother me. Why are there so few women here? Why is it always the men that are running the show? That’s kind of where my interests evolved from. Just sort of experience and just noticing there is a disparity and I don’t understand the reason for it when we all started from the same level. I don’t know where things fell of the rails.

Sarah:         That’s interesting. That’s actually a topic we talked about during a panel Gowling WLG hosted in honour of International Women’s Day. The conversation really focused around the need to get more women involved in executive level and leadership positions. Obviously within the legal profession, but also just within all types of organizations across Canada ,which I think ties into the work Women Get on Board is doing. You can tell us a little bit about this company and how you became involved?

Lorraine:      Sure. Women Get on Board is an organization that was founded in Toronto in 2015, so it’s very recent, by a lady named Deborah Rosati. I’ve known Deborah for many years. She was originally in the technology community in Ottawa. She was a CFO of several technology companies when I was in my in house role, so we sort of met in a professional capacity, as colleagues and peers. She later branched, her career path becoming a director on several different companies, and that’s now her full time career. She is a corporate board director for a number of large organizations. Deborah sees on a daily basis, in her role, the disparity that exists between males and females around the boardroom table. She started Women Get on Board in an attempt to address this disparity. When she started Women Get on Board I became one of her founding members. I think I was one of the first. I don’t know how many were founding members, maybe 100 of us that first joined, that were the first to sign up. We were called founding members. I just was really interested in it because at the time same I had just become an independent director on the board of Ross Video. I was interested in the support that Deborah’s organization might be able to provide, her experience would be a benefit to me, and I was just looking for some commonality and experience from other women doing the same thing. I jokingly said to Deborah, “You know, are you going to ever have any events in Ottawa because it’s a bit of pain for me to come to Toronto every time you’re hosting something.” Then last fall she called me and said, “You know what? I’m going to open a council in Ottawa, Women Get on Board, and I want you to be on it.” That’s sort of where I became involved and our Regional Ambassador Council here only formed in the fall of 2016. I’m on the Council with five other women and we’ve hosted two events now in Ottawa which have been very well attended. The whole point of the organization is to host events, we host three events per year on topics of interest to people who either want to obtain a board position or to improve their performance as a board member, the organization also has online training tools available to its members.

Lorraine:      How does your work tie into the work that “Catalyst” does? Which, for our listeners, is a not for profit organization aimed at accelerating progress for women through work place inclusion. Are the two organizations connected?

Lorraine:      Debbie is, I shouldn’t call her Debbie, she goes by Deborah. I know her as Debbie. Deborah’s an alumni of Catalyst. She often speaks on panels with the organizers of Catalyst. I see the two organizations as fairly complimentary to each other. Catalyst has sort of a different angle. The women who are part of Catalyst have been sponsored and organizations pay, I think, $10,000.00 per woman who becomes part of the Catalyst organization. It’s quite expensive. Women Get on Board is a much less expensive sort of way to get involved in board opportunities. It works together with Catalyst with also organizations like “The 30% Club”, the ICD, “The Institute of Corporate Directors”, “ITAC Women on Board” and “The Directors College”. All of those organizations, they work collaboratively together, to help advance gender diversity in the boardroom.

Sarah:         Fantastic. As a female leader in the legal profession do you feel like you’ve faced challenges or barriers throughout your career? Obviously there are clear barriers in place, in the sense that there historically has been a lack of females in leadership positions, but what has been your personal experience?

Lorraine:      I always hate to say, I don’t like to sound like I have a chip on my shoulder, or to say that women face more challenges than men. I don’t like to look at it that way. I just find it very interesting the way things have evolved. I don’t know what the cause is or what the reason is or what’s going on but I think the fact that we are actually having these conversations is really good. I think everybody is facing challenges. It’s a difficult thing to do to obtain a paying board position. I think that’s a challenge for anybody regardless of your background or gender or whatever. I think it’s so important to make connections and I think that maybe therein lies the problem. Often boards will look to who they know when there’s an opening on their board. They want to fill that opening with someone who they know and often those networks then tend to be a little closed. I think things are going to change. People need to look beyond their core networks of people when they’re doing board searches and that sort of thing. But I think, for myself, I don’t think I saw that as the challenge. I guess it’s a little intimidating when you are the only woman at the table and you don’t have a female leader to look up to or to look to for mentorship or guidance. You have to sort of look laterally rather than above you. Aside from that I think you need to find champions to help you and not to be afraid to ask for help. You also have to decide whether it’s something you’re interested in doing. If it is then take steps to get there. Take education courses and make connections with people that can help you. People who are on existing boards. Ask them how they got there and what you could do to improve your opportunities. I think really, for me, I just tend to focus not on the negative and what it appears I can’t do, but I like to focus on what I can do to change any sort of negative perceptions.

Sarah:         I think that is a really great outlook. You’ve already identified some tips and advice for individuals who are looking to take on leadership roles but do you have any other tips for young lawyers, or even just young professionals in general, who might want to either take a board position or some other executive level position one day?

Lorraine:      Yeah. For one, I think it can be a really incredibly rewarding experience and so if you have a particular area of interest, whether it’s a not for profit or for profit company, if there’s some area that really interests you and you get excited talking about it, then you should pursue becoming a leader in that. One way to do that is to come on an advisory board, on a not for profit board, surround yourself with supportive people and don’t be afraid to ask for their help. What I have found is often a little bit of pro bono work can really go a long way in the way others perceive you. I’m convinced that it has had a lot to do with how I’ve evolved in my roles. I’ve had people call me and ask questions and I haven’t sent them a bill for it. I’ve talked them through it and thought, “That’s fine. I’m not going to bill you. You’re a friend of a friend or whatever.” It’s get paid back. It’ll come at you when you’re not even expecting it. Suddenly somebody will say, “Oh, well, I got this referral. Somebody’s telling me to come to you because you did this for them.” I am thinking, “Oh. Well, that’s a fantastic way to get new business or opportunities.”

Sarah:         Yeah. Exactly.

Roberto: What would you say are the key challenges to getting more female representation on boards?

Lorraine:      I would say one of the key challenges is, there’s often cited this reason that there are so few female board members, is there’s a perception out there that there are not enough qualified women to fill these positions when they come available. I think that’s really an easy excuse and it’s not a reason that’s justified by the fact. I think that’s really the key challenge is how do we change that perception. Even the complier explain rules. I think it’s too easy for companies to offer a canned response to that complier explain requirements. Yes, we consider women and we always appoint the most appropriate person to the position. I think a little more thought needs to go into that. I think organizations need to understand the benefits that their organizations will obtain from having diversity in their boardroom and on their executive level.

Roberto: How can men be allies or champions in that regard?

Lorraine:      Yeah. So in my view men are critical to this whole process. Men are currently the people who are occupying these positions and we need them on our team. I can tell that I’ve met lots of men who are very much in favour of these initiatives and are more than happy to help out and to encourage you and to introduce you, make introductions. But I think one specific thing that men can do is when that perception is raised, that we’ve looked and there’s just nobody qualified that happens to be a female, so we’re going to go with the same sort of white male that we’ve always hired, when that perception is raised the men who are in those positions, they need to stand up and say, “No. I don’t believe you. I think that’s incorrect. I don’t think we’re looking hard enough. There’s all these organizations that women get on boards, there’s the ICD website, there’s Catalyst, they all have data bases of qualified female board candidates.” So, there’s got to be somebody who would fit in your organization that’s on those lists. The men who are CEO’s and chairs of boards, they need to lead by example, and treat board diversity as a strategic opportunity to build a better board for their organization. And not painful regulatory requirements that they have to pay homage to. In my view, I think I’ve said this, but the explanations for the lack of gender diversity provided in public disclosures in public companies, those disclosures are really weak in my view. They should a significant level of disinterest in actually achieving gender diversity. I think men in those roles, anybody has the power to influence that disclosure, should be really questioning whether any sort of real thought and effort has gone into actually increasing diversity on the board and in the man’s routines in these corporations.  They can do things like perform annual assessments of their boards, composition for diversity, and not only of gender, but also thoughts, skills, experience, industry and geographic, just to make sure that they’re not all yes men saying the same things a CEO is saying. It needs to provide some arena for really thoughtful discussion.

Roberto: Where do you see this organization going in the future? What types of programming and opportunities do you see coming up?

Lorraine:      Women Get on Board has now expanded from Toronto to Ottawa and they have a mandate to expand across Canada to have Regional Ambassador Councils in hosting events in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. That’s great. To expand it nationally and get the conversations going across the country and engaging women and men in senior positions across the country. To share their experiences and help empower other women to build their competencies and be connected to opportunities to serve on boards. I think that that’s a great initiative that the Women Get on Board is taking and I’m really happy to be a part of it.

Sarah:         Fantastic. Thank you so much for being here with us today, Lorraine.

Lorraine:     Yeah! My pleasure.

Roberto: Listeners, we’re looking for your involvement. If you ever have any questions, comments or ideas for topics and guests, please look us up at gowlingwlg.com and get in touch with us. We’d love to hear from you. Also, make sure to check out our show notes for this episode at gowlingwlg.com/diversonomics9.

Sarah:         And last, but not least, make sure to subscribe on iTunes so you don’t ever miss an episode. While you’re at it leave us a review and let us know what you think.

Roberto: You can also follow me on Twitter @robaburto. Do you have anything to plug, Lorraine?

Lorraine:      Sure, you can also follow me on Twitter @lkmbizlaw and I just would like to encourage everyone to seek opportunities to be the agents of change to help clients and colleagues achieve diversity in a leadership of their organization.

Roberto: And what’s the website for Women Get on Board?

Lorraine:      It’s www.womengetonboard.ca

Sarah:         Fantastic. Thanks again. Diversonomics was presented to you by Gowling WLG. See you next time.


NOT LEGAL ADVICE. Information made available on this website in any form is for information purposes only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. You should not rely on, or take or fail to take any action based upon this information. Never disregard professional legal advice or delay in seeking legal advice because of something you have read on this website. Gowling WLG professionals will be pleased to discuss resolutions to specific legal concerns you may have.

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