In September, Richard Leblanc, a fellow who apparently knows a thing or two about corporate governance, decided to do a quick, informal search to see how many Canadian boards still don’t have any women on them.
He managed to find at least 35, and on that same page, he links to a PDF that notes that more than 170 of the Financial Post 500 had exactly…zero female directors in 2011. The list includes some pretty big names, including Air Canada, McCain Foods and WestJet Airlines.
Moreover, the census data suggested that change is happening at a glacial pace: in 2009, 41.9% of companies had no women directors; in 2011, two years later, 39.5% of companies still had no women directors.
I’ve seen numbers like this before, but this batch caught my attention because of a meeting I’d been to recently. It was a smallish gathering of female entrepreneurs, with most of the attendees leading start-ups. The discussion was focused on raising money, with many in the room complaining that the venture-capital world could be very, very tough to navigate without a guide.
There were similar concerns about managing a board of advisors. People management is a tricky business at the best of times; when the personalities involved have a major financial interest in your company, it can become a minefield. There is no “school” you can attend to show you how to do it right.
Obviously, such issues aren’t restricted to female entrepreneurs: nearly every start-up CEO must, at some point, spend a cold, dark night contemplating a term sheet and make the decision that could make or break the company.
What women still don’t have enough of are mentors, exemplars and especially networks to help them through the rough patches. This is particularly true in Canada, where the population is so geographically dispersed.
In contrast, have a look at the start-up scene in Silicon Valley. With a few high-profile exceptions (e.g., Sheryl Sandberg or Marissa Mayer), it’s still dominated by men. (They’re all somewhere between the ages of 18 and 35 and there’s even a uniform: the untucked plaid shirt and blue jeans.) But, more to the point, they all know each other, and they help each other all the time. You can see it in their marketing messages (“Hey, check out what my buddy John is doing…”), on their product partnership and third-party integration web pages and by checking out who sits on those infamous advisory boards. Even if you’re a complete newbie, you’ll soon meet someone who knows someone who will be able to tell you how they hacked the system. (Or, the Valley being in America, someone will try to sell you a course on how they hacked the system.)
When you’re trying to become one of the big dogs, or even just trying to land a big account, a key factor in your success will be having access to people who know how things work. That’s what makes numbers like the ones I cited above so frustrating. With more than a third of our biggest corporations without even a token female presence, and successful entrepreneurs busy doing what they need to do to remain successful, it has got to be hard for aspiring businesswomen to learn the ropes.
So what’s the solution? Have a look in the mirror.
If you’ve survived your first year of business, you’ve already earned the equivalent of an MBA (or two, or three), and have something you can share—even while you’re looking for that mentor who’s been around for more than five years.
Also, have a look at your Rolodex. Is it overflowing yet? If not, get out of the office more often and attend those networking events you’ve been invited to but haven’t made time for. More importantly, be a connector. In your travels, if you meet two people who might be even remotely simpatico, be the one who makes the introduction.
If we all start doing this more often, we’ll all start reaping the returns sooner.
Heck, we may even see women on all of our big corporate boards before…2052.
Chandra Clarke is the president of Scribendi.com, an award-winning, ISO-certified company that provides document-revision services to corporations and SMBs around the world. She blogs about the issues particular to women entrepreneurs at NeverPink.com.
More columns by Chandra Clarke