Status of Women Minister Kellie Leitch says the government has done "outstandingly well" in reaching short-term gender parity targets, with women making up 31 per cent of senior appointments.

"We're doing outstandingly well. We do way better than corporate Canada: 31 per cent of governor in council appointments are women right now and we're aspiring higher," Leitch said, referring to federal government appointments to heads of agencies, CEOs of Crown corporations and members of quasi-judicial tribunals.

"Both for the public sector and the private sector, the short and long-term goal over five years is 30 per cent. The government of Canada has surpassed that; the long-term goal was gender parity."

Leitch unveiled Thursday the steps she wants corporate Canada to take to put more women on boards of directors. The advice comes from the advisory council for promoting women on boards, a group the government named in 2012.

According to statistics in the report, women held 15.9 per cent of seats on the boards of the country's 500 largest public and private companies as of 2012. It noted that in the public sector, women represent 31 per cent of positions appointed by the governor in council, including those to Crown corporations and government agencies.

The announcement came after a week of criticism levelled at Justice Minister Peter MacKay, Leitch's Conservative colleague, over statements he reportedly made about women having a closer bond with their children.

"I've known Minister MacKay for many years, and I was not in the room when it took place," Leitch said.

'Championed many women'

"What I do know is that Peter MacKay has championed many women, some of which are now federal court judges and individuals who have come up through the JAC [judicial appointments committee] system," Leitch said.

The Toronto Star reported last Thursday that MacKay told lawyers at an Ontario Bar Association the previous week that fewer women than men are named judges because fewer women apply. He reportedly said women have a closer bond to their children than men, and therefore the path to the bench is too demanding for some of them.

MacKay has denied making those statements and said that's not how he thinks. But emails he sent to his department surfaced this week in which he lauded mothers for changing diapers and taking care of meals, but praised fathers for "shaping the minds and futures of the next generation of leaders."

New Democrat MP Megan Leslie, the party's deputy leader, says calling something outstanding doesn't make it so.

"I don't see what the problem is here. If we want women to be appointed, then we should appoint women. It is actually that easy. It's not like women don't go to school and women are sitting at home in the dark not understanding how the world works. We're pretty savvy individuals and we make up over half the population," Leslie said.

Liberal MP Marc Garneau said the Conservative government has only appointed one woman, Andromache Karakatsanis, in six appointments it's made to the Supreme Court — seven including the failed appointment of Marc Nadon. It's one of the most visible institutions in the country, he said.

"And nobody's going to tell me that there are not eminently qualified women to be on the Supreme Court," Garneau said.

Lack of focus, commitment to gender diversity

The advisory council suggests it's not for lack of qualified women that the number is low on corporate boards and in government roles. It wants Canadian companies to aim to have 30 per cent of their boards made up of women by the end of the decade en route to a longer-term goal of full gender balance.

At the same time, the report says women:

  • Make up 47 per cent of the Canadian workforce.
  • Earn more than half of all university degrees.
  • Earned 35 per cent of MBAs granted in 2011.
  • Accounted for 47 per cent of students in master's level business and management programs in 2010.

The report also recommends that publicly traded companies put in place "comply and explain" policies that would set internal goals on how to achieve gender balance as well as provide annual updates on their progress.

It noted that some of the obstacles standing in the way of more women achieving positions at the board level are a lack of focus by executive search firms to recruit female members, lack of commitment to gender diversity and inaccurate information on the availability of female candidates.

"Inertia in leadership networks is a key institutional obstacle to women's advancement to board positions," said the report.

"As several of our advisory council members state, high-potential women may also be self-limiting their career aspirations due to a lack of information about the knowledge, training and skills needed for board work, as well as the shortage of inspiring role models. What is clear is that the current pool of talented women in the workforce with business skills, experience and education exceeds their levels of representation at the highest levels."

'Good for business'

Having more women on boards will reflect "market realities" and appeal to shareholders, the report added.

"The research is very clear. Increasing the representation of women on boards is good for business and associated with higher profitability."

"Not only does an improved gender balance enable corporations to hire and recruit board members from a broader talent pool, it more accurately reflects clients and markets."

The representation of women on boards has been a hot topic for the past few years. In January, the Ontario Securities Commission proposed that all publicly listed businesses be required to disclose targets for the number of women in high-ranking positions as directors and executive officers on their boards, reveal how they search and select candidates and how they decide whom to hire.

However, the OSC shied away from suggesting hard quotas, which some observers said was the only way to force change. Others argued that a quota system would force the promotion of unqualified candidates solely to meet gender requirements.

With files from The Canadian Press