Something stinks about Algoma board’s lack of women

Back in 2015, Prime Minister Trudeau validated women when he presented a cabinet with gender parity, explaining his rationale unapologetically: “Because it’s 2015.” Yet, in July 2021, he offered Algoma Steel $420 million toward environmental improvements. Why is this a problem? According to its website, Algoma Steel has no women executives, and no women on the board. Perhaps it’s time that big government money (our tax dollars) needs to be provided to companies who don’t breach UNDP Sustainable Development goals including gender equality.

A journalist friend published a story about Algoma Steel’s preliminary proxy statement filed last month with the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission while it is trying to go public. The story was about its statement on diversity, as Algoma put forward the names of only men for their executive and board.

I joked with my friend that the steel ceiling must be much tougher to break than a glass ceiling, but this is not an industry thing, and it is not funny. There are women executives and board members in the steel industry. Take Nucor, for example, which has one woman on the executive team, and two women on its seven-member board of directors. Nucor is listed on the S&P 500, which makes it one of the 500 largest U.S. publicly traded companies.

To punctuate that sentence, there are currently no companies on the S&P 500 without at least one woman on their boards. The 500 largest publicly traded companies are not about making bad business decisions, so what do they know that Algoma Steel doesn’t?

Women on boards have been found to not only improve financial results, but also to improve accountability, relations with stakeholders, and ethical behaviour. There are plenty of international and North American-based meta studies of companies that prove this out time and again. It also just makes logical sense. You want people with diverse opinions and backgrounds at the table to make the best decisions. It avoids group-think. You can’t do that if your boards are pale, male, and stale.

According to Osler’s 2020 Diversity Disclosure Practices report, “Canada’s larger companies continue to lead the way as women hold 31.5 per cent of board positions among the S&P/ TSX 60 companies and 28.3 per cent of board positions among the 221 companies included in the S&P/TSX Composite Index. All-male boards continue to wither away, representing only 18.5 per cent of the TSX-listed companies.”

Best practices out there exist for gender inclusion and how it improves not only the bottom line. Corporate investors are demanding diversity in the companies they entrust with their money, and some companies even tie executive compensation to the achievement of diversity and inclusion goals. This shouldn’t have to be put into law, but two years ago California led with a gender parity law, requiring public companies to have at least one woman director by the end of 2019. Perhaps it is time for Canada to make sure that if it is handing out $420 million to a company, that they are worthy of the money.

I am disappointed in Algoma Steel for thinking that it couldn’t find women who would enrich the conversations at its board table. The World Economic Forum reported that in 2018 more women were earning PhDs than men, so it can’t be a question of brainpower. I know in this community alone, home to a college, university, and government research centres, that we have a staggering number of brilliant women, many with doctorates (including myself).

Algoma Steel’s diversity statement says that it will: “consider criteria that promote diversity,” and “consider the level of representation of women on its board of directors and in senior management positions, along with other markers of diversity, when making recommendations for nominees to Algoma’s board or for appointment as senior management.” That sounds hollow when I then read: “Algoma does not expect to adopt a written policy regarding the identification and nomination of women directors, or formal targets regarding the number of women on Algoma’s board of directors or in executive officer positions.” Their position is clear in the final sentence: “Upon closing of the Merger, Algoma will have no women on its board of directors and no women as executive officer.”

Do better Algoma Steel. If you want to go public and earn your place at the table with the big boys, you should start by including women at the table. Prime Minister Trudeau, show us that you still value women, and make Algoma clean up more than just their environmental record.

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