In her 13-plus years as a director on boards for organizations ranging from the Canadian Public Accountability Board to SNC-Lavalin Group Inc., Benita Warmbold has seen the dial move on women’s representation.

She has gone from being the second woman on the board to, in some cases, the sixth woman on a board, said Warmbold, who joined Scotiabank’s board in 2018.

“That tells me that we're making progress. I'm fortunate to be part of organizations that have really made a commitment and focused on gender diversity. Really, the conversation now is to push for diversity beyond gender.”

Warmbold was speaking at an event for senior women clients of Scotiabank’s Global Banking and Markets (GBM) business, as part of The Scotiabank Women Initiative's Good Corporate Governance Program. The program is designed to open boardroom doors to more women in senior leadership roles by helping to build up knowledge and competencies with sessions on topics such as navigating boardroom dynamics and the latest trends in corporate governance. It is designed and facilitated by Scotiabank’s Senior Vice President, Corporate Secretary and Chief Corporate Governance Officer, Julie Walsh.

 “Good corporate governance, including gender diversity, influences both a company’s performance and its culture,” said Walsh. “At Scotiabank, we provide specialized training to prepare our officers to serve on boards and have a better understanding of the role of a director and corporate governance issues. It has been rewarding to share this training as part of The Scotiabank Women Initiative to prepare women outside of the organization for board roles as well.”

The Scotiabank Women Initiative for GBM program is a tailored, comprehensive program providing opportunities for women clients to pursue their best professional futures, and supporting the leaders and companies advancing an inclusion mandate. The initiative has three pillars, Education, Innovation and Advisory, which includes the Good Corporate Governance Program.

Boardroom observation also useful experience

The session with Warmbold is part of broader efforts to increase women’s representation at the executive and board levels in Canada and abroad. At Scotiabank, women hold five out of 13 board seats, or 38%. The latest analysis from Canadian securities regulators showed that among the 610 publicly listed companies reviewed, women held just 20% of the total number of board seats, compared with 11% in 2015.

Warmbold, an experienced executive in the public and private sectors, is currently active on several boards in addition to Scotiabank, including Methanex Corporation, SNC-Lavalin Group Inc., Crestone Peak Resources, Canadian Public Accountability Board, and the advisory board at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University.

However, her experience with boards started long before she joined one.

During the recent virtual event, with professional women clients from multiple organizations across Canada and the US, in attendance, Warmbold recounted her experience as a recent university graduate working at KPMG as a Chartered Professional Accountant, when she was asked to attend an audit committee meeting of a public company to assist a partner. It was one of her earliest exposures to a board, and the learning curve was steep at first. Over time, she learned about all the work required by directors, and the long-term benefits that a company can gain from a high-performing and engaged board, Warmbold said.

Later, during her nine-year tenure at CPPIB in roles including Senior Managing Director and Chief Financial Officer, Warmbold attended various companies’ board and audit committee meetings. From those meetings, she observed how a high-functioning board operates, as well as what not-so-effective board members look like, she said.

“It's not about necessarily having direct board experience, but it's about having experience at the board table. So, sitting at the table during the discussion, seeing how things work, is equally as valuable to companies as is having served,” Warmbold said.

‘Speak up and advocate for a good change’

Her advice for women wanting to join a board is to express their interest widely to those who may be influential or are likely to be contacted for director recommendations. However, she advises knowing your value proposition and elevator pitch in order to effectively make your case when you get the call.

Warmbold said it’s also key to become acquainted with a board before joining, to see if it’s a good fit and ensure you’re being recognized for the expertise and skills you bring to the table.

“Nobody wants to be a token representative and I don't think that's helpful for the organizations or the functioning of the boards,” Warmbold said. “As a prospective board member, I might ask a few of the directors, ‘How do you think I could make a contribution? Why pick me?’ And if I didn't get an answer that talked about my skills or my background or my attributes, then that's a red flag.”

Warmbold said the discussion around diversity beyond gender should have been happening long before, but she is glad that it is now getting more attention. She described a time where she challenged a board to incorporate more diversity criteria into a hiring decision, when the conversation was limited to hiring men or women. She later got an email from the board chair thanking her for holding them accountable, she said.

“If people don't speak up and advocate for a good change, it gets hard to see how the change will actually happen,” Warmbold said.