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BCE rejects call to set targets for number of women in senior management

TORONTO – Telecommunications giant BCE Inc. (TSX:BCE) rejected a shareholder motion to set targets to increase the number of women on its senior management team during the company’s annual general meeting Thursday.

The proposal came from a shareholder and member of Mouvement d’education et de defense des actionnaires (MEDAC) on behalf of the group, which aims to give shareholders better representation before corporate boards.

“We would like to think that it is no longer necessary to demonstrate that the skills and competencies of female directors and executives compare favourably to those of men, that there are sufficient female candidates to meet demand and that they are prepared to rise to the challenge if given the opportunity,” said the MEDAC member.

Another shareholder who said he was a former BCE employee questioned whether it had made any effort to increase female representation in the company.

“Don’t turn your back on women,” he told the meeting in Montreal.

In a preliminary count at the meeting, 86 per cent of the votes were against the proposal.

The board of directors had advised shareholders to vote against the proposal in its 2016 proxy circular.

It argued that while it values diversity, such considerations shouldn’t override the promotion of people with the appropriate skills, experience and leadership abilities, and that not setting targets allows BCE to advance the most qualified candidates.

Women fill more than 26 per cent of the company’s leadership roles, said spokeswoman Jacqueline Michelis.

The company remains committed to having 25 per cent of its board of directors composed of women by 2017. Currently, three out of the board’s 14 members are women.

BCE’s promise is in response to a proposal from Catalyst Accord, a non-profit organization that works to increase female inclusion in the workplace. The group is calling on Canada’s FP500 companies to have a quarter of their boards be filled by women by next year.

BCE competitor Telus (TSX:T) has also promised to meet that goal. Currently, Telus has three women sitting on its 14-member board, according to its website.

Five women serve on the 15 board positions at Rogers (RCI.B), that company’s website says.

MEDAC made a similar proposal at last year’s BCE annual general meeting, asking the company to set a target of 40 per cent of its board members to be women. That proposal was also rejected.

BCE held the meeting after reporting its first-quarter results. The company recorded a more than 30 per cent jump in its profit compared with a year ago.

It said it earned $707 million or 82 cents per share for its first quarter, up from $532 million or 63 cents per share a year ago.

The company said the increase was due in part to lower severance, acquisition and other costs, offset in part by higher income taxes and increased depreciation and amortization costs.

On an adjusted basis, BCE said it earned 85 cents per share for the quarter, up from 84 cents per share a year ago. Revenue totalled $5.27 billion, up from $5.24 billion in the first three months of 2015.

BCE employs close to 50,000 people across its wireless, landline and various media businesses. The company also owns Bell Media, which operates 28 TV stations and 30 specialty channels, as well as more than 30 radio stations and dozens of websites.

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Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said revenue was $5.24 billion in the first three years of 2015.