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Diversity among directors and executives in Canada’s clean technology sector

Oct 13, 2021

This resource has been updated with information from our 2021 Diversity Disclosure Practices: Diversity and leadership at Canadian public companies report. You can download the full report [PDF] to learn more.

Disruption, by definition, implies change. So, you might expect that a sector like clean technology (cleantech), which is based on providing a disruptive alternative to traditional incumbents, would be equally advanced on matters such as gender diversity. That’s at least partly true. Compared to conventional energy sectors, cleantech has significantly more women directors and a modestly larger share of women executive officers.

Yet it’s a different story when clean technology is lined up against the full list of TSX-listed companies in Osler’s 2021 Diversity Disclosure Practices [PDF] report. In that comparison, while clean technology still ranks near the top for women directors (second in percentage and fourth in number per company), it sits close to the bottom for women executives (in the bottom half for percentage and bottom third for number per company).

This executive shortfall was top of mind when leaders at the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto created the Women in Cleantech Challenge, a call for ideas and business proposals from female innovators to address global energy and environmental concerns. In the FAQ section on the Challenge website, under the question, “Why can’t men apply for this challenge?” the organizers stated: “In clean significantly outnumber female founders and executives. While women have an important role to play in the clean innovation economy, research shows they have a more difficult time raising capital, lack an adequate support network of mentors, and face a number of other barriers that men typically don’t face.”

Familiar obstacles

A 2017 research report [PDF] by Electricity Human Resources Canada (EHRC), seeking solutions to help boost participation by women in clean technology, outlined some of those other, familiar barriers. They included:

  • difficulty in setting a clear career path due to a lack of knowledge about opportunities in the sector
  • a limited number of visible role models in the sector
  • perceptions of a traditionally male-dominated industry and workplace culture
  • family obligations and a lack of family-friendly human resource policies and culture

It also probably doesn’t help that at least some clean technology companies are closely linked to established energy players (via equity positions, management crossovers and the like), many of which have diversity challenges within their workforce.

In 2020, EHRC published Advancing Gender Diversity in Canada’s Electricity Sector: A Compendium of Success Stories [PDF], which illustrates that some progress, however small, may be underway in the industry.

Latest diversity data

The percentage of women directors at TSX-listed clean technology companies as of mid-year 2021, according Osler’s 2021 diversity disclosure report, was 30%. As noted, that’s significantly higher than the 20% mark posted by the oil and gas sector (also better than the technology sector, too, which also came in at 19%). It’s also well above the 22% average for TSX-listed companies as a whole (based on 614 companies that disclosed) but still below the 33% average for S&P/TSX 60 company boards. On a per board basis, clean technology had 2.31 women per board as of mid-year 2021 versus 1.56 in oil and gas and 1.42 in technology.

Breakdown of number and percentages of women directors in 2021

Breakdown of number and percentages of women directors in 2021

The percentage of women executive officers in the clean technology sector as of mid-year 2021 was 17% (1.25 women per company). This was slightly higher than 15% in oil and gas and lower than the 18% in technology. Both the clean technology and oil and gas sectors were lower than the TSX-listed average of 18.2% (based on 565 companies that disclosed) and the 22% average among S&P/TSX 60 companies.

Breakdown of number and percentages of women executive officers in 2021

Breakdown of number and percentages of women executive officers in 2021

Trends since 2015

What’s quickly apparent looking at Osler’s survey results from 2015 is the substantial improvement in women’s representation on clean technology company boards. That year, only 10% of directors were women, with an average of 0.85 women per board. In six years, in other words, the percentage of women on clean technology boards tripled.

The trend for women executive officers, on the other hand, shows little change. The mid-year 2021 figure of women holding 17% of executive officer positions is up slightly from 12% in 2015.

Women executive officers in the Clean Technology sector

Women executive officers in the Clean Technology sector

Best practices and sector leaders

Given the different improvement rates between boards and the C-suite in this sector, there are more examples of best practices in the former category.

Innergex Renewable Energy epitomizes the recent arc. This rapidly growing Québec-based renewable power producer, which owns and operates hydro-electric, wind and solar operations, first adopted a board diversity policy in 2015 and updated it in 2021. Currently, that policy requires that each gender represents at least 30% of the directors on the company’s board. Its current 10-member board has three women, all with distinguished résumés, who began their service in 2015, 2017 and 2019 respectively.

Algonquin Power & Utilities, a renewable energy and regulated utility with operations across North America, adopted a formal diversity policy in 2017 (last revised in 2021) that covers its board and executive leadership. That policy lists as an objective that each gender comprise at least 30% of directors on the board. In addition, the company employs related best-practice measures to support progress on gender diversity. These include:

  • requiring gender diverse short-listed candidates for all senior roles recruited
  • ensuring gender diversity has important weighting in executive succession planning
  • assessing the effectiveness of the board appointment/nomination and executive management appointment processes at achieving the company’s diversity objectives

Algonquin’s current eight-member board includes three women; four of 10 executives are women.

Global comparison

Data from other countries — both micro and macro — show similar patterns and obstacles for women in clean technology. In London, for example, research by the London Sustainable Development Commission’s Women in Cleantech working group [PDF] identified a range of personal and institutional challenges towards moving to gender parity in cleantech that had many parallels with that reported at MaRS in Toronto. A 2019 report by the International Renewable Energy Agency, meanwhile, found that women make up just 32% of the renewable energy workforce globally. While this exceeds women’s representation in traditional energy sectors, the same report noted that most women in the sector hold administrative roles rather than specialized technical roles that provide a stronger basis for career advancement.

To help address the sector’s challenges at a global level, the Clean Energy Ministerial, a partnership of senior representatives from the world’s leading economies (23 countries plus the European Commission), established the “Equal by 30” campaign in 2018. Members pledge to work towards equal pay, equal leadership and equal opportunities for women in the clean energy sector by 2030 and to report on their progress. Through mid-2021, 12 countries, including Canada, and more than 135 companies and 13 industry bodies and professional associations had joined the campaign. Canadian public companies which are signatories to the campaign include Emera Incorporated, Ontario Power Generation Inc., Parkland Fuel Corporation and Innergex Renewable Energy Inc., which has already met its commitment and has three women on its 10-member board.