Law alumnae start DirectHer Network to prepare women to join boards

Chantel Cabaj and Elsa Johnson hope to raise female participation on Alberta boards to at least 30 per cent

Helen Metella - 31 January 2020

Two alumnae of the Faculty of Law have founded a non-profit organization that gives Alberta women the tools and support necessary to serve on boards of directors.

Lawyers Chantel Cabaj and Elsa Johnson, both '12 JD, launched the DirectHer Network in 2019, after noticing many capable women fail to pursue leadership opportunities on boards because they do not completely understand the duties, the language and liabilities such a role entails.

DirectHer then created Board Basics, a workshop designed to walk women through all the concepts during a simulated board meeting of a small organization.

"It's a mock non-profit dance studio, because that's common to the kind of board they might start at," said Cabaj, a partner and governance advisor with National Growth Partners and president of DirectHer Network.

"The studio runs a showcase, it brings in money, it has issues like a faulty HVAC system. It gets grant money, so there's that to consider, and there's conflict with employees, so policies have to be established. It's a real example of what they might face."

Workshop participants tackle each step that an actual board would encounter during a meeting, including following an agenda, reading financial statements, calling motions and engaging in discussions and votes.

DirectHer started when Cabaj, Johnson and several other female professionals realized that not only were women "deplorably under-represented on boards of directors in Alberta, but even in our own privileged and highly educated female communities there were few women who felt truly qualified to go after board positions," said Johnson.

The group also realized there are few programs available to train for board positions for women who lack corporate backing or some previous board experience.

"We want boards to reflect the communities we actually live in, and that means it is essential that Indigenous women, women of colour, members of the LGBTQ2S+ community and women with a disability are sought-after and empowered to join boards of directors," said Johnson, who assisted in developing the content of the workshops and is DirectHer's board chair.

According to a 2018 report by the Canadian Securities Administrators, women accounted for only 12 per cent of corporate boards in Alberta, up just one per cent since from 2017.

Cabaj and Johnson believe it should be at least 30 per cent. Research on critical mass shows that group dynamics shift when about one-third of a group agrees with each other, says Cabaj. If a board is made up of only men it risks fostering a homogenous thought process that discourages questions, she says.