Harper’s ‘Comply or Explain’ policy will only be effective if companies take it seriously and we listen to their explanations with an open mind

An interesting, but not well publicized measure in the Conservative budget was an amendment to the Canada Business and Corporations Act that would require all companies listed on Canadian public stock exchanges to either put a policy to promote gender diversity in place or publicly explain why they do not have one. Ontario, under Kathleen Wynne, released a similar measure late last year. This so called ‘comply or explain’ measure was seen as a welcome development by many (I am one of them), including those who might have preferred a stronger binding measure (e.g. gender quotas). One of those is Pamela Jeffery of the Women’s Executive Network who said, “I think there should be an annual, fulsome review once ‘comply and explain’ is in place. If companies aren’t complying and they’re doing more explaining, then we’ll need to push for something stronger”. Here I partially disagree. I think it really depends on what the explanations are.

‘Comply or explain’ is really the first action any organization should take on issues of diversity (particularly gender diversity). Like quotas, it requires companies to address the disparity; but unlike quotas, it does not prescribe any one specific corrective action. Instead it is only asking for information. Companies will be forced to study why their boards lack diversity and report their findings to their shareholders – simple as that. All this bill is requiring of companies is transparency. I believe this is the correct course of action for government intervention on this issue, and is a far better idea than quotas. Why should I force companies to enact a particular binding corrective action to improve gender diversity if I have no idea why the lack of diversity exists in that company in the first place? For those who support quotas, the answer is simple: they already know what the problem is – sexism.

Sexism and discrimination (e.g. hiring/promotion preferences, harassment, etc.) are the starting points (and frequently the ending points) for most public discussions of gender diversity. It is important to address sexism where it is found. Measures that target sexism have no downside and should be applied wherever necessary. However, incorrectly equating lack of diversity with sexism too often leads us to overlook other significant causes of gender disparities – some of which have accessible remedies, and almost none of those are quotas. For example, Richard LeBlanc, a business professor at York and Harvard, makes the sexism assumption when discussing ‘comply or explain’: “Unless women are biologically unqualified or unfit to be public company directors or senior managers…the proposition is that women do possess skill parity with men”. While he may (or may not) be right, it is worth acknowledging that he is making a significant logical leap by equating skill parity with equal representation. For one he is assuming equal-sized demand- or applicant-pools for these positions.

As a comparative example, there is no large body of evidence suggesting that women are more skilled primary school teachers than men, but they make up more than 80% of them. Although sexism in teaching remains significant – with the nurturing behaviour in men still associated with the ’pedophile stigma’ (a stigma causing significant retention problems for male teachers in elementary school) – it is unwise to argue that is the primary cause of underrepresentation if men only represent 24% of applicants to teacher’s college in the first place. In other words, recruitment into the pipeline is the far more significant driver: more women than men want to be teachers. Therefore, it is hard to argue on this data alone that quotas are the best way to improve gender diversity in teaching or say what the ideal gender makeup should be. Public awareness campaigns attempting to de-stigmatize male nurturing and perhaps greater support available for the falsely-accused (of pedophilia) seem like far more sensible measures. Fixed quotas at the job level don’t address the stigma at all; they just make it easier for policymakers to say they are doing something about it (making it less likely that the correct thing is actually done). They also make teacher training more inefficient by effectively pushing out the excess of female teacher candidates that have already gone through it (where there was no quota). If we want to go further to encourage more men to apply to teaching, this should be done at the level where they are not applying, or earlier (e.g. programs for kids that encourage boys to go into teaching, like we do for women in science), not at the very end of the pipeline.

For ‘comply or explain’ to achieve its goal, companies will have to approach the measure seriously in good faith, and the explanations will have to be thoughtful and well-researched. However, I believe more importantly, the public will have to be willing to listen to these explanations with an open mind before deciding how to move forward. We have to make sure we correctly diagnose the underlying causes, and then choose corrective measures that are correctly targeted to these cause. If taken seriously by both companies and the public, comply or explain will likely not prescribe the same solution in every industry, even for executive recruitment. Comply or explain will let companies make independent diagnoses. Some will pull back the wool and find mainly discrimination and sexism, which I hope they will promptly address. Others may not find much sexism, but instead will find other significant issues of recruitment and/or retention – each likely prescribing different corrective actions. Others still (I suspect the majority) will find a combination of causes, with varying degrees of discrimination and other problems (recruitment/retention). In each case, accurate and nuanced diagnoses will allow the companies to come up with appropriate and nuanced solutions. For example, compare the hypothetical explanations one might get from a trucking company where there are hardly any women in their ranks to recruit from, a corporate law firm that starts 50:50 in entry level and then loses women rapidly due to job dissatisfaction and the motherhood penalty, and an investment bank where high pressure and sexist culture drives women away in the first few years. Although all will have few women in their senior management (and most likely the law firm will not be a public company), each disparity has a different principal driver that suggests a different course of action.

Academic science and engineering disciplines have been the forefront of trying to address gender diversity, effectively operating under ‘comply or explain’ for over a decade with plenty of resources available to collect data and study the origins of gender disparities in their disciplines. They provide examples for other sectors of what has worked, what has not worked, and where exclusive focus on discrimination has led to overlooking other important contributors and inter-field differences. To academics’ credit, while male and female academics are certainly not immune to subconscious gender biases (no one is), recent studies have shown that the spotlight on sexism has proven effective at eliminating discrimination against women in STEM hiring and promotions – leading to some improvements in diversity. However, women remain significantly underrepresented at the faculty level, this despite now being given 2-to-1 hiring preference over men with the same qualifications in faculty searches.

What is missing? Well if recent research is indicative, the largest problem is likely different in different disciplines. In engineering and computer science, the disparity begins at the undergraduate level or earlier and then the gender ratio remains constant throughout the pipeline. This suggests that there is little trouble with retention and promotion and – like with men in teaching – efforts to improve diversity need to be focused at the high school level or earlier, not the faculty level. In the life sciences, it is a different story, even though the female participation is much larger. While the numbers are near parity at the undergraduate and graduate levels, there is a significant loss of women in the pipeline between the graduate and faculty level. A good place to look for clues as to why this might be the case is to look for differences between the career tracks in the life sciences and in the physical sciences (where there is no such leaky pipeline). One such difference is the duration and nature of postdoctoral work – typically 2 years or less in engineering and computer science, but 5 years+ in life sciences. These are generally divided into several placements with no job security and few parental/maternity benefits, while covering the prime childbearing years for women (and men). Given that even those female postdocs with stay-at-home husbands (I know many) are responsible for the pregnancy and feeding/pumping, it is surprising how poor the maternity/family leave provisions and workplace/timeline flexibility are for postdocs, particularly considering how serious universities and funding agencies supposedly are about promoting gender diversity (and how improved family-leave policies have been implemented at the faculty level). What is important is that in both cases, the de facto ‘comply or explain’ policy has provided academics with a wealth of data that should allow them to implement the best practices.

I actually wish that the idea of ‘comply or explain’ – where good-faith efforts and thoughtful explanations meet an open-minded public – would be applied far more broadly to gender diversity and other diversity topics in our society beyond corporate leadership. We can only benefit from greater public understanding of why there aren’t more female police officers, male teachers, and female soldiers (where a 25% quota has been passed, then declared unrealistic and ignored) – regardless of what (if anything) we decide to do about it.

What if we asked our judges to explain why the majority of our prisons are filled with men (currently at 89% in Canada)? This gender disparity is so stark in the black community that there are only 83 black men for every 100 black women aged 25-54 living outside of prison in the US while there is parity at birth. If we look for an explanation, we find the answer looks similar to racial disparities in the justice system and gender disparities in most other fields. Sexism is significant, but is certainly not the leading cause of the disparity. Men commit more crimes than women, but there is also very significant sexism in prosecution and sentencing, with men receiving an average of 63% longer sentences than women for the same crimes (a disparity that is actually significantly larger than racial disparities in sentencing, with blacks receiving 14% longer sentences than whites). Applying ‘comply or explain’ level transparency to the legal system would only force greater awareness of biases, without enforcing specific unrealistic results – as gender quotas in prison (a resoundingly stupid idea) would.

Making ‘comply or explain’ effective will require us to be less ideological and more thoughtful. It will require us to look past the oft-repreated statement that “no country has yet achieved gender equality” and realize that such an assertion is meaningless unless we ask the much more difficult question “what does gender equality look like?” Is it a world where everyone, regardless of gender (or gender identity), has an equal opportunity to pursue any career they choose? Is it a world where all walks of life – our politicians, our executives, our doctors, our lawyers, our software engineers, our nurses, our teachers, our firefighters, our plumbers and our prisoners – are equally represented by men and women? Or is it somewhere in between, with equality of result superseding equality of opportunity in some important disciplines but not others? For example, the benefits of group diversity may make gender parity the ideal in political and corporate leadership, regardless of if that requires creating unequal opportunity to offset unequal recruitment/retention. Some have also argued that the need for male and female role models in school (particularly for struggling boys) may make it important for us to move closer to parity in teaching, even if it means discriminating in favour of male applicants, as the TDSB has decided to do recently (as mentioned above, I disagree with this approach). On the other hand, maybe we decide that achieving parity amongst nurses, soldiers and prisoners may be less important – so long as discrimination and sexism are rooted out and everyone is given an equal opportunity (or a fair trial). The important thing is – if we don’t make an effort to define where we want to end up – how are we ever going to get there? My hope is that the more explanations we get, the better we will understand the principles we want to comply to.


One thought on “Harper’s ‘Comply or Explain’ policy will only be effective if companies take it seriously and we listen to their explanations with an open mind

  1. Pingback: Ian’s endorsement: Why I am voting Liberal this election | The Tête-à-Tête

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