Taking steps to fix gender inequality in the workplace could give Canada's economy a $150-billion shot in the arm, a major consultancy says.

In a report published Wednesday morning, the McKinsey Global Institute found that gender inequality in Canadian workplaces isn't just holding women back, it's bad for the economy as a whole.

Even incremental progress in getting more women into managerial positions, high-skill STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, entrepreneurship, or even just into the workforce in the first place, could be worth as much as $150 billion more to Canada's economy by 2026.

That's an extra six per cent worth of growth compared to what the consultancy says would happen if no new steps are taken.

"Increasing women's equality is not just a moral imperative [and] it's not just the right thing to do," McKinsey & Company's associate partner Tiffany Vogel told CBC News in an interview. "It's good business practice."

In the report, McKinsey looked at 69 large Canadian corporations who collectively employ more than a half a million people.

Despite outnumbering men in higher education, women still significantly lag behind their male counterparts as they enter their working years, and are drastically underrepresented in terms of being promoted into higher-paying positions.

Doubters of the gender gap like to suggest that much of the wage gap can be explained by individual life choices as opposed to being caused by nefarious conspiracies. But McKinsey's report finds troubling evidence that there are systemic problems at play.

Despite outnumbering men at university and colleges, women make up just under half of all entry-level employees but only 25 per cent of vice-presidents and 15 per cent of CEOs.

"At almost every stage of the pipeline, women's likelihood of being promoted to the next level is smaller than men's," the report found. Women are 30 per cent less likely to get promoted out of an entry-level position, and 60 per cent less likely to move from middle management into the executive ranks, Vogel said.

In short, women in the workplace lack the same opportunities as men, but the report found several best practices readily available for forward-thinking organizations to start taking baby steps toward equality:

  • Don't just talk — do: Half of companies say gender diversity is a strategic priority, but less than one in six had made a clear business case to change the way they operate. "There's real business value," Vogel said.
  • Set targets, track and share results and be accountable: Fifty-five per cent of companies lack targets for female representation, and 75 per cent do not track female recruitment nor reward leaders for fostering gender diversity.
  • Create mentorships:​ Men are 50 per cent more likely to attribute their advancement to a senior leader than women are, yet 80 per cent of companies lack a formal sponsorship program.
  • Be more flexible even after promotions:​ Most companies offer long-term leave or part-time programs, but 58 per cent of employees believe that taking advantage of them hurts their career progression.
  • Be aware of unconscious bias: ​Women comprise only one-quarter of senior leaders, but 80 per cent of employees think their company is inclusive. 

"We really need to drive transparency and then hold people accountable to those targets," Vogel said, "and really set ambitious targets to get them."

Part of the problem that's happening in Canada's workforce is what's happening at home. The McKinsey report found that 64 per cent of unpaid care work for family members and loved ones is being done by women, which naturally leaves them with less time and energy for their career.

"They are still living the burden of sort of the double workplace," Vogel said. "So it's not just a workplace question, it's also a society question."

While McKinsey's report gives Canada credit for being a global equality leader in the past, workplace equality issues have stagnated for 20 years, the report suggests.

Which is why even implementing a bare minimum of the recommendations would juice Canada's economy by billions of dollars. But if Canada could somehow close the gender gap completely — get women and men equally involved in the workforce, with similar hours and pay — the benefit would almost triple, to an extra $420 billion in the next nine years.

"That's the opportunity that's on the table over the next 10 years," Vogel said.

With files from Jacqueline Hansen and Robert Parker