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Girls on Boards: An Initiative to Give Young Women a Voice

As a University of Toronto Commerce student, Khadija Waseem was frustrated that her classes “encouraged young women to be in business, but you still don’t see them in decision-making spaces, and you don’t see them as the heads of organizations”. Born and raised in Toronto, as a hijab-wearing young woman actively involved in her community, she found it difficult to find people who looked like her in decision-making roles.

In recent years, progress has been made for diversity, but the gender gap for board of directors is still far too wide. How wide? Let’s get the facts. Less than 1/5 of all leadership roles across Canada are held by women. According to Statistics Canada’s latest numbers, only 18.1% of director seats were held by women in 2017. 61.2% of boards were composed entirely of men, with only 11.1% of boards having more than one female member. It’s 2020. How are over half of Canadian boards without a single female voice? We spoke with four inspirational female board members who have participated in Girls on Boards to find out why this is the case and how we can create change.

Creating Change

Although the numbers as a whole may seem discouraging, some organizations, particularly in the non-profit sector, are dedicated to a diverse board of directors. Organizations are starting to understand that, as Dennise Taylor-Gilhen, Vice President of Community Impact for United Way East Ontario, noted, “you need to have a diverse number of voices at the table to understand the complexity of the issues”. Colleen Kennedy, Executive Director of Canadian Club Toronto, confirmed her thoughts by stating that the “financial proof that the diversity of a board makes a better company or non-profit is irrefutable”.

The Canadian Club of Toronto proudly boasts a 50/50 board. They are dedicated to reflecting the city that they represent. The United Way of East Ontario’s current board chair is a woman. These non-profit organizations, along with 50 others, understand the value in a young woman’s perspective. To date, 52 non-profit organizations have taken action to give young women a voice by participating in G(irls)20’s important and inspirational initiative: Girls on Boards.

About Girls on Boards

Girls on Boards launched in 2017 with the support of the Department of Women and Gender Equality in hopes of challenging the status quo of low female representation on governance boards. It places intelligent and passionate young women (aged 18-25) on non-profit governance boards in their communities across Canada. The women, who are referred to as Young Directors, are paired up with an organization that aligns with their values and passions. They are given a board seat for a 1-year term. However, both Amal Elmi, United Way East Ontario Board Member and 2nd Cohort of Girls on Board, and Khadija, Canadian Club of Toronto Board Member and 1st Cohort of Girls on Boards, were asked to stay on their boards after their placement ended. Both women still hold seats to this day.

Becoming a Young Director

Prior to being selected as a Young Director, candidates must complete an application process which Khadija described as being “one of the most powerful experiences” as she had to explain how the program would impact her, her community, and young women across Canada. Once chosen, the Young Directors are provided with free online training through onBoard Canada and in person coaching with a G(irls)20 approved coach. Khadija and Amal fondly recall the extensive training which included governance training, how to read financial statements, negotiating tactics, and risk management. Complementing the practical skills training, Young Directors undergo mentoring and coaching.

Amal and Khadija both highlighted the Imposter Syndrome Workshop as a memorable and highly beneficial experience. Amal recalls speaking to her cohorts about it being an ‘a-ha’ moment. She noted: “A lot of us have the skills, we have the knowledge, but we don’t always have the opportunity. And then, when the opportunity finally presents itself, we tend to second guess whether or not we belong.” Her feelings were echoed by Khadija:

“I think it’s very nerve wracking for young women to put themselves out there. Even the act of applying for something is nerve wracking. You feel like an imposter, but the awesome support systems that G(irls)20 has allows you to move past your imposter syndrome and own the spaces that you’re in. It allows you to take the seat that you have at the table and really use it.”

To illustrate the weight of imposter syndrome, Khadija, who was on student council throughout high school and previously involved with Daughters of the Vote, was recommended and encouraged by numerous people to apply for Girls on Boards. Even with her previous experience and the encouragement of others, she felt hesitation and recalls thinking, “Why would I get in? No one would hire me.” These feelings of uncertainty and inadequacy ripple throughout the female population and can be a contributing factor to the drastic gender gap in decision-making roles. Girls on Boards combats these feelings by providing the support system of coaches and other Young Directors.

Life on a Board

Once the women complete their training and are assigned a board, their one-year term begins. They have the opportunity to attend board meetings and votes, community and networking events, and offer their input and guidance on policies. Khadija had the pleasure of organizing a panel last year called “Being Brown Downtown”. She was overwhelmed with excitement to have the opportunity to create “a panel that looked like the rest of Toronto, a panel that looked like [her].” The panel was a well-received success for Canadian Club of Toronto. Khadija brought some of her own contacts and created a space that allowed for an important discussion to partake. Without her involvement on the board, “Being Brown Downtown” would not have existed.

As United Way East Ontario focuses on community issues surrounding youths and vulnerable people, Amal was able to provide beneficial insight. Being the youngest board member, she was able to help them make decisions about what to invest in and what to consider. She has volunteered to participate in the allocations process where she will have a chance to read proposals and assist in their deliberations. Both women are well respected on their boards and have shared their opinions and perspectives to help create positive change.

Along with the practical experience of sitting on a board, the women have gained soft skills. They have gained confidence, learning how to trust their voice and opinions. Both women have created lasting relationships with their fellow board members and mentors. They go for coffee chats and stay connected with a network of people who they can turn to for personal and professional advice. Both women are eager to see what new and exciting board opportunities await them. Now equipped with their Girls on Boards experience and diverse network, their possibilities are endless.

Advice to Young Women Pursuing Leadership Roles

Colleen Kennedy
Executive Director of Canadian Club Toronto

“Have confidence in yourself and your abilities, but also sit back and listen to what’s going on. Know that there are reasons that things have been going on for years and take the time to learn why things are successful before you want to disrupt them, but when you do, have confidence in your ideas and yourself.”


Dennise Taylor Gilhen
Dennise Taylor Gilhen
Vice President of Community Impact for United Way East Ontario

“Remember to believe in your abilities and know that there is a place for you. I think that many of us have eventually found our voice, but it has taken maybe too long. This is why we need to help amplify the voices of others – other women at the table, other women who may be silent because of their background or ethnicity or disability. Helping to echo those voices is very important.”

Khadija Waseem
Canadian Club of Toronto Board Member
1st Cohort of Girls on Boards

“I really encourage young women to apply for this program and all of the programming available to them. Do not let that self-doubt prevent you from pursuing things like Girls on Boards. It’s not going to be an easy journey, but allow yourself to learn and grow. Be kind to yourself and keep an open mind.”

Amal Elmi
Amal Elmi
United Way East Ontario Board Member
2nd Cohort of Girls on Board

“Don’t be afraid to take up space. Ask questions. Share your experiences and accomplishments. We’re not always in places where we can talk about things that we’re good at, and when we are, we may not have the confidence or comfortability to.”



Girls on Boards is currently in its 4th cohort with 30 women across Canada participating. Applications for next year’s cohort will open in the fall. To learn more about this amazing program and how you or your organization can get involved, click here.

We all have a voice. We just need an opportunity to use it.

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Marlaina Lanese

Marlaina Lanese

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