The Canadian Bar Association
Employment & Labour, Education

Women on corporate boards: a worthy mission

Acting as a director on her first corporate board has had a positive domino effect for Windsor employment and education lawyer Sheila MacKinnon.

MacKinnon, managing partner of Shibley Righton LLP’s Windsor office, tells AdvocateDaily.com she has often served on boards where she is either the sole woman or one of only a few.

Repeated studies have determined a dramatic absence or under-representation of women on corporate boards, showing that Canada has fallen behind other countries when it comes to promoting female membership.

A report by TD Economics found while women's participation in the labour force has increased significantly, that change has yet to be reflected at the top of Canada's largest companies.

MacKinnon has found it takes determination and, in some situations, strategic planning.

“I would say to my associates, if you’re interested in serving on a board, then you first have to kind of work your way up,” says MacKinnon, who has served on both community and corporate boards while continuing to work as a lawyer. “I believe in succession planning; allowing someone to demonstrate their skills in one area before taking on a bigger role."

MacKinnon’s own experience came about quite by accident. And she found one role quickly led to another.

After working at a Bay Street law firm, MacKinnon returned to her home town of Windsor to help run a couple of retirement homes with her mother. She was approached by the local credit union, where she was a member, to sit on its board.

“I think when I started there I was the only woman on a board of nine,” she says, thinking back to 1988.

She remained there for several years and ultimately served as its chair for five years and as chair at the time it decided to merge with a large credit union. That post led to her work on the University of Windsor board of governors, where she also became chair.

MacKinnon currently serves on the board of directors for the Erie St. Clair Local Health Integration Network.

Community board work can offer the foundation necessary to provide both the experience and any specific direction the individual would like to pursue, she says. MacKinnon, for instance, likes to be involved in governance and policy.

But for anyone to be effective in any executive role, she says training is critical. There are organizations that provide guidance, information about a board member's role and help to equip individuals with the tools they need for effective representation.

For those just getting started, MacKinnon suggests seeking a position on a committee before perhaps serving on the whole board, if the structure permits it.

“First, you get involved at the committee level, then you can move on to chair that committee,” and that could lead to a role on the board.

“I tell young female associates that if you’re interested in community service, it’s good to get on boards. You make connections, and that’s also good from a business development point of view.” And that could be especially beneficial for those not from the community in which they now find themselves working.

What’s key, MacKinnon says, is expressing an interest to do that type of work and then getting the experience and training to fulfil that role effectively.

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