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Lack of women on corporate boards becomes source of tension among shareholders

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TORONTO — The lack of women on corporate boards has become a source of tension among shareholders at the annual meetings this week of two big-name companies.

The CEO of Dollarama (TSX:DOL) was confronted with the issue head-on Wednesday, when a shareholder urged him to increase the number of women on the retailer’s 10-member board of directors. The board has one woman, who joined the board in February 2015.

“We are in 2016,” said Andre C. Gauthier. “I think we need to improve the presence of women on boards.”

CEO Neil Rossy defended the company’s inclusion of women in leadership positions in a news conference after the meeting.

In 2014, Dollarama hired Johanne Choiniere as its chief operating officer, its most recent upper management opening, Rossy said.

The next time a vacancy arises on the board of directors, a woman may be given more consideration than a man in an effort to establish greater balance, he said.

“We all think it’s the right thing to do,” Rossy said.

The matter is also set to come up Thursday at the annual general meeting for Restaurant Brands International, the parent company of Tim Hortons and Burger King.

In a shareholder proposal, OceanRock Investments Inc., which owns more than 13,000 common shares in the company, and the Shareholder Association for Research and Education (SHARE) are asking RBI to write a formal board diversity policy and inform shareholders how and when it intends to increase the number of women on its 10-member board of directors and in senior management positions.

“We believe RBI’s all-male board is a step backwards for diversity at the company,” said Fred Pinto, OceanRock Investment’s chief executive, in a statement.

Before Tim Hortons and Burger King merged and became RBI in late 2014, one-quarter of the Tim Hortons board was comprised of women, according to the shareholder proposal.

RBI declined to make a recommendation on how its shareholders should vote.

Shareholders in BCE Inc. (TSX:BCE) rejected a similar proposal in April. A shareholder and member of Mouvement d’education et de defense des actionnaires (MEDAC) asked the company to set targets to boost the number of women on its senior management team.

Despite rejecting the proposal, BCE said it is committed to having women fill one quarter of its board positions, responding to a call from Catalyst for Canada’s FP500 companies to do so by next year. Some of Canada’s big banks, telecoms and other firms have all signed on to the so-called Catalyst Accord.

Catalyst, a non-profit organization working towards greater inclusion of women in the workplace, released a report this week on how to accelerate gender diversity on Canada’s corporate boards.

It recommended companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange commit to having women represent at least 30 per cent of the seats on their boards of directors over the next three to five years.

Ontario’s Liberal government announced a higher target, saying it wants women to make up at least 40 per cent of all appointments to provincial boards and agencies by 2019. Premier Kathleen Wynne encouraged other businesses and corporations to do the same.

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