I’m sitting in a room outside the Toronto Stock Exchange TV studio, sharing one of those trendy Danish style couches (all sharp angles and faux leather), with Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, when I think: how did we get here?

We are both St. Catharines ‘girls’. (I graduated from Collegiate Institute high school, while she is an alumna of West Park Secondary School.) We are both visible minorities. We both grew up in a part of southern Ontario where the main employers were, for the longest time, smoke-spewing factories that made cars and steel.

Yet here we are; two non-white women from Canada’s industrial heartland, talking about how to bring more females onto corporate boards, while sitting (literally) at the power centre of business and commerce in downtown Toronto. She has just rung the opening bell at the TSX to mark the Canadian launch of theBoardlist, an exclusive peer-to-peer site that helps companies find qualified, experienced women for their corporate boards.

Then I realize something else. I’ve interviewed several dozen male executives during the 20-plus years I’ve covered business and technology, including a couple of billionaires, a member of the Forbes dynasty, a knight (Sir Terry Matthews) and even a member of America’s own Camelot clan, the Kennedys. But I can barely count on one hand the number of females I’ve interviewed in a CEO, CFO or other C-suite role.

Now there’s one sitting next to me.

Clout and connections

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy

Singh Cassidy has been a CEO at three companies, including her current venture, a video ecommerce site called Joyus based in Silicon Valley. (She handed over the CEO reins in January to become chairman.)

After West Park and Western’s Ivey business school, she worked in investment banking and broadcasting before moving to tech, eventually spending almost six years as Google’s president of Asian and Latin American operations.

With a two-decade track record in tech, and her current seats on the boards of TripAdvisor and Ericsson, Singh Cassidy has the clout to get theBoardlist off the ground. It’s an online network where pre-approved companies (both public and private) can search for pre-approved female candidates to fill vacant positions on their boards.

What’s the pre-approval about? Well, a woman can’t just add herself to the site’s pool of potential board candidates. She has to be nominated by at least one endorser (i.e., a Boardlist member who has also met other separate criteria) and meet at least one of six requirements. Under the bare minimum criteria, a woman must be a CEO or founder (VP level or above) of one or more companies with more than $5 million in revenue. Previous board experience (including non-profit) is a plus but not necessary.

“Based on quality”

The rules are meant to kill any qualms about a tokenistic ploy to simply boost the volume – rather than the value – of female board representation.

“It’s based on quality. That’s everything. The reality is, the list is a curated marketplace and its whole credibility depends on the quality of the nominators and the candidates,” says Singh Cassidy, who founded the site.

“The challenge is that boards today are still kind of a prestigious yet opaque process,” she continues. “So to have credibility, you need to have people feel very safe with the quality of the candidates.”

Singh Cassidy has clearly worked her deep corporate connections to get Silicon Valley’s commitment to theBoardlist. Founding members include former Cisco CEO John Chambers as well as executives from the likes of Twitter, Evernote, Airbnb, Google and Yelp.

Getting results

Since theBoardlist debuted in the U.S. in 2015, it has helped place 61 women on American corporate boards. The original site now features 1,000 approved endorsers and 1,600 nominated women. Although the official Canadian launch was Monday night, 120 endorsers and 150 female board candidates have already been accepted by theBoardlist on this side of the border.

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, founder of theBoardlist (centre in blue jacket) rings the opening bell at the Toronto Stock Exchange. (Photo: CNW Group/TMX Group Limited)

There’s still a way to go, though. According to a Deloitte study of nearly 6,000 companies in 49 countries, women held only 12 per cent of board seats as of 2015. Another 2015 report, this one by MSCI, suggested companies with “strong female leadership” (based mainly on female board representation) had a return on equity of 10.1 per cent vs. ROE of 7.4 per cent for companies without a high female board ratio.

In a Q&A before the TSX bell ringing ceremony, a TV anchor wondered aloud what many of us in the audience were silently thinking: aren’t people getting sick of talking about the need for more women on corporate boards? Later, when the cameras are off, Singh Cassidy tells me that heck, yeah, she’d love it if she never had to hear about the subject again either.

“We want to banish the sentence, ‘How do I find great women for my board?’ A year from now, I’d like that (question) to be done with,” she says.

The most common complaint from companies confronted about gender diversity, she adds, is that they don’t know where to look for women who fit the bill. TheBoardlist is her response to that. Still, she doesn’t believe companies intentionally design boards to be heavily weighted with men.

“I don’t think people need to be convinced on gender diversity anymore. I think it’s just not a priority. The much harder problem – and long term goal – is to convince entrepreneurs and founders to build better boards.”

The Information Technology Association of Canada took its own step in that direction last summer. It created an initial registry of 33 women it called “board-ready” based on vetting by Knightsbridge recruiting professionals.

For now, the Fearless Girl statue stands opposite the bronze Charging Bull near the New York Stock Exchange. (Photo: BusinessWire)

Standoff

After I thank Singh Cassidy for her time and exit the TSX, I think about a similar building in lower Manhattan. Since March, a statue of a young girl has been standing near the New York Stock Exchange, outside the proverbial gates of Wall Street, defiantly staring down a gigantic bronze bull.

Sculptor Kristen Visbal created Fearless Girl as part of an ad campaign for an investment fund comprised of companies with a higher-than-average percentage of female leadership. The piece was supposed to be there temporarily but is now so popular that its public display permit has been extended until February 2018.

Charging Bull sculptor Arturo di Modica has filed a lawsuit to remove Fearless Girl immediately, saying it violates the copyright of his own artwork, which has stood nearby since 1989. “My bull is a symbol for America,” he told MarketWatch. “My bull is a symbol of prosperity and for strength.”

So far, that girl is still there, hands on hips, standing her ground.

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