The Harper government has been appointing fewer women to Canada's more than 200 federal tribunals, boards, agencies and Crown corporations, figures from the Privy Council Office show.

According to data provided to CBC News, the percentage of women occupying those jobs from 2002 to December 2005 was about 37 per cent. But when the Conservatives took over in 2006, that percentage began to drop.

A formal response from the office to Liberal MP Anita Neville shows the percentage was about 32.5 per cent from February 2006 to May 2010.

As far as Neville is concerned, the drop is proof that the Harper government is not committed to increasing the number of women who occupy these positions, which total more than 2,000.

"I think that it's not a priority," Neville told CBC News. "It takes an effort to ensure that women put forward their names and that there is an environment where women know that if they put forward their names, they'll be given serious consideration. And I don't think that exists at the present time."

For her part, Conservative Senator Marjorie LeBreton insists the criticism is off-base.

Though she concedes that the percentage of women appointees is down under the Conservatives, LeBreton, said it has nothing to do with a lack of commitment to promoting women.

LeBreton, who is also the government leader in the Senate, said she uses her position as a high-profile member of Harper's government to encourage women to consider public service jobs.

She said Rona Ambrose, minister of state responsible for the status of women, also tries to drum up interest at meetings of women's groups.

Ambrose's office did not return calls from the CBC requesting an interview.

Governor-in-council appointments

Federal appointments have been likened to an expanded civil service.

"Everything from port authorities to heritage councils, cultural boards, trade boards," explains Penny Collenette, who was the director of appointments for Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien in the mid-1990s. 

"The system of orders-in-council appointments really is the backbone of federal public government in this country. In a way, you call it the people's service."

The positions typically only last for a few years, with the government of the day reserving the right to reappoint the person after terms expire.

"They are in positions that are important in terms of determining the direction of government," said Brooke Jeffrey, who teaches political science at Concordia University in Montreal.

"So as an outward and visible symbol of the government and as someone who will be in a leadership role, you have to assume that it's important that women be there. It's also important that visible minorities be there. ...

"Any decrease in representation, given that already we're way behind other countries, is a negative step that should cause concern. It's not that there aren't qualified women there."

A history of appointing women

Recent prime ministers before Stephen Harper had policies in place to boost the number of women among federal "governor-in-council" appointees.

LeBreton was Brian Mulroney's director of appointments in the 1980s when he was prime minister.

"We had a good outreach program," she recalls. "The prime minister gave specific directives that we were going to get these numbers up, and if we didn't have a significant number of women, he would simply reject all of these appointments until we did. So there was a lot of political will driven by the prime minister. And we achieved great results."

When Chrétien became prime minister, he appointed Collenette as his director of appointments and she put specific programs in place to recruit women.

"We read trade magazines," said Collenette. "We looked for women who won awards. If I found a really good one, I would call a minister and ask, 'Did you know this person?'

"That's how it worked. Some party members weren't always happy with me."

Since that time, however, the percentage of women appointees has fallen.

"I think it's a disquieting trend," said Collenette. "I wouldn't yet call it alarming. A number of questions have to be asked. Are women applying in the same numbers as their male counterparts? Are women being offered and saying no?

"That was the case for a number of times when I was director of appointments, much to my horror."

Neville said the trend indicates that the Harper government lacks the political will to increase the percentage of women among government-in-council appointees and even within its own government.

She said that prompted her to demand details about the present-day makeup of appointees.

LeBreton insists Neville and other critics are wrong to suggest her government lacks the political will, though she was hard-pressed to name specific measures the Tories have taken to attract more women.

Although she carried out policies to recruit more women in the Mulroney government many years ago, LeBreton sees no need to do the same thing today in Stephen Harper's government.

"The prime minister doesn't have to go out [and talk about the need for more women to apply for positions]. None of us has to go out and say that. It's a given. We're way past that era now. Way past."