Merely a crack in the glass ceiling

Can women break the glass ceiling? Female professors and lawyers gave their insight at a panel discussion on corporate governance hosted by the Dalhousie University Association of Women & the Law at the Schulich School of Law.

Forty percent of the largest 500 companies in Canada have no women on their corporate boards despite the financial incentive to have a diverse board.

In an article by Ray Adler in the Harvard Business Review, one study found 94 per cent of companies with two or more female board directors had better policies on audits, risk management, and conflict of interests than companies without female directors.

“Being the only woman can be difficult but a good opportunity to contribute,” said Dawn Russell, the first female dean at the Schulich School of Law who teaches corporate law and is a member of several corporate boards. “As a woman you bring a different perspective.

“At one board meeting, I asked about whether the auditor, who also did consulting work for the company, was truly independent. With that question, the guys started to question our audit process and I became the head of the audit committee,” said Russell. “It’s the freedom of being an outsider.”

Laurie Jones is surrounded by strong women. She practises corporate finance law with 10 other female partners and associates at McInnes Cooper, an Atlantic Canadian law firm. She quickly learned how and when to speak up about her mistakes.

“Don’t be too quick to fall on their own sword,” said Jones. “You shouldn’t be so quick to apologize when something goes wrong that’s out of your control. If you make a mistake, admit it and move on.”

Sarah Bradley, a professor in corporate securities law and an associate at McInnes Cooper, suggested the increasing focus on corporate accountability will lead boards to search beyond the usual applicant pool of CEOs to fill positions. This means young lawyers need to develop their skills to be successful candidates.

“Put yourself in position to be on a board by maintaining your professional reputation,” said Bradley. “Be confident in who you are and what you’re capable of. The best place to start is getting experience on a non-profit corporate board.”

Julie Sobowale is a first-year law student at Dalhousie University.

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