By John Manley and Rahul Bhardwaj, as originally published in the Financial Post.

Canada’s biggest companies and organizations are worth trillions of dollars and impact the lives of virtually everyone in the country by creating wealth, enterprises and institutions that fuel our growth. As such, the quality of leadership in the corner offices and boardrooms cannot be overstated.

The Business Council of Canada and the Institute of Corporate Directors together represent about 13,000 members from leading companies and organizations and as we mark International Women’s Day we believe it’s important for all of us to try and take stock of where we are and what we can do.

Indeed, International Women’s Day may resonate with more people this year as it follows unprecedented global attention on women’s rights, equality and justice, which has ramped up with the MeToo and Time’s Up movements.

Equal representation between men and women is an important issue that corporate Canada’s been addressing for a number of years. And while we’ve made some progress there’s still more to do to create corporate cultures our children will be proud to work with that are safe, respectful and that pay equitably and fairly.

Continued inaction may change the conversations focused on voluntary diversity to ones concentrated instead around mandatory diversity.

Simply put, we need access to all of the leadership talent that Canada has to offer. Unfortunately, the most recent results regarding gender diversity on boards and in senior management suggest that, collectively, we’re not doing a particularly good job of this. The latest diversity disclosure results from the Ontario Securities Commission show some progress with 61 per cent of all public companies featuring at least one woman on their board. That compares with less than 50 per cent two years ago. However, women fill only 14 per cent of the board positions on all listed companies in the country. And according to Catalyst Canada, only seven of the 249 companies listed on the TSX’s main index have female CEOs.

This should concern our companies. First, because they are missing out in a global race for talent and second, because continued inaction may change the conversations — and obligations — in Canada that are now focused on voluntary diversity to ones concentrated instead around mandatory diversity. We know that corporate Canada can do better in diversifying its leadership so neither is an optimal outcome.

So what can businesses do today to progress the inclusion of women in Canadian corporate leadership positions?

Understand how diversity can improve your business and governance outcomes

There is a misconception that when we talk about gender diversity, we’re only talking about “putting women in leadership roles because it’s the right thing to do.” Actually, good boards and management teams are not hesitant to promote women when they are the best for the job and contribute to their organization’s growth and success: They see the correlation between diversity and better business.

There is a growing body of research that suggests that more diverse management teams outperform less diverse counterparts and achieve higher returns in the long term. In just one example, a research study by Credit Suisse following the 2008 economic crash found that companies with more gender balanced boards proved to be more stable. Diverse leadership also enables innovation by translating new thinking into the marketplace. A recent study from the Canadian Foundation for Governance Research shows that companies with more women on their boards file a higher number of patents. Diverse boards also mitigate against groupthink and can bring nuances to governance that help to create, model and oversee more inclusive corporate cultures. Given this, it is no surprise that institutional investors and proxy advisory firms are valuing diversity as a key to better corporate governance.

Be better at renewal

As corporate boards contend with a broadening set of issues to oversee, including corporate culture, automation, cyber resilience, sustainability reporting and reputation management, diversifying the skill-set required to effectively govern is critical. Developing a board renewal process that encompasses extensive analysis of needed or desired skills, experience and behavioural competencies will force more nominating committees to look beyond the usual names and will expose boards to a more diverse set of professionals, including more women.

Developing leadership talent should also be a priority for senior management. To continue strengthening their talent pipeline, more companies should think of formalizing leadership programs wherein high-potential women are mentored and developed and offered stretch roles to gain exposure.

This is a competitiveness issue: In a globalized world with startups around every corner, companies that want to attract and retain the best human capital need to offer talented and promising women real avenues for growth and career satisfaction.

Have a plan

Like every aspect of business, progress is measured against a plan. This means developing and disclosing to investors a diversity policy for the board and for senior management that reflects the realities of your business and your industry.

Last November, the Business Council of Canada and the ICD joined with other partner organizations to found the Canadian Gender and Good Governance Alliance and develop a playbook to help senior leaders build their diversity strategies. This is a step-by-step guide to initiate or speed-up organizational diversity. As with every initiative in business, what gets measured gets done.

On International Women’s Day, it is particularly important for Canadian businesses to focus on the steps they can take today to improve the participation and inclusion of women in leadership positions. Yes it’s about diversity but it’s also about competitiveness.