Woman in b&wwas recently invited to take part in a discussion about why it matters there are so few women on corporate boards of directors and in senior executive roles. At first, I was surprised we are still debating such a fundamental question. But as I pondered the theme, I realized there is still at least one critical difference of opinion about this topic.

I’ve interviewed many senior business men and women about their efforts to boost the number of women on boards, and they all agree improving diversity in senior roles is important because it improves their bottom-line profitability. The universal argument is: “It’s good for business.”

They always make a great case, citing reports produced by highly respected organizations such as McKinsey, Citigroup, and Credit Suisse. This research shows that companies with more women on their boards enjoy higher profits and produce stronger shareholder returns because they are making full use of society’s available talent and bringing more diverse perspectives, which improves decision-making.

But to me, this answer always sounds incomplete. I always try to probe for a deeper response: Surely diversity is also important for reasons of basic equality? Since women are half the population and 47% of Canada’s workforce, isn’t it simply unfair that men hold 87% of seats on corporate boards at Canada’s largest companies? When women now fill 37% of all management jobs—creating an ample pool of qualified women ready to move into top executive positions—how can it be fair that men still hold 82% of senior officer positions in the Financial Post’s 500 group of companies?

While some business executives do admit equality is important, most of them—women and men—then immediately insist the only way to convince a reluctant audience is to frame the issue as a “hard” argument about profitability, rather than a “soft” argument about social issues.

The hard sell may indeed resonate better with reluctant business people, but it is a pity it’s still necessary in 2014. In fact, I’d reverse the argument. Rather than insisting equality is only important because it helps businesses become more financially successful, I believe the main point is fairness. Bottom-line profitability then becomes an extra benefit—a nice-to-have, rather than a must-have.

It is impossible to dismiss the power that major corporations wield in our society. The broad cultural emphasis on the bottom-line and the overriding merits of profits are just one symptom of their influence.

Corporations affect their employees, customers and society in general through the decisions they make regarding how and where they will produce and sell their goods and services. The people who run these companies help determine who is hired and promoted and paid more. They ultimately decide what is offered for sale, and how those products will be made— including where jobs are located, and whether the company will embrace socially responsible practices. Senior executives in these top “power” jobs ultimately shape the practices and cultures of the companies they run, setting a tone that permeates throughout an organization.

Given how critical these roles are, it is essential that women can earn a say in running these organizations. Change comes slowly in old institutions, but it will happen when enough people acknowledge the necessity. If business-based arguments are the only way to convince powerbrokers to accept change, then so be it.

But no one should feel reluctant or ashamed to also argue for fairness and equality. They are universal principles, not soft emotional arguments. And they deserve to be spoken. 

This article first appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of SHE magazine.

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