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Corporate Canada should aim to have 30 per cent of women on boards: Ottawa

Minister of Labour and Minister of Status of Women Kellie Leitch responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, October 21, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

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Minister of Labour and Minister of Status of Women Kellie Leitch responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, October 21, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Canadian companies should aim to have 30 per cent of their boards made up of women by the end of the decade, with the longer-term goal being full gender balance, urges a report Thursday by a federal advisory group.

The report, titled Good for Business: A Plan to Promote More Women on Canadian Boards, believes the 30 per cent target is a "reasonable national target" that can be achieved by 2019 and would put corporate Canada on track to eventually achieve gender equality on boards.

"Our government believes that increasing opportunities for women to serve on corporate boards makes good business sense for Canadian women and for Canada's economy," Dr. Kellie Leitch, federal minister of labour and status of women, said in a statement.

The report, by the ad hoc federal Advisory Council for women on boards, 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.

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. When taking into account all boards, that figure drops to 10.3 per cent.

Meanwhile, in the public sector, that figure was much higher, with women representing 31 per cent of positions appointed by the governor in council, including those to Crown corporations and government agencies.

The report encourages the federal government to build on this progress and continue to lead by example by promoting women to these positions while simplifying the appointments process.

It noted that some of the obstacles standing in the way of more women achieving positions at the board level is 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."

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 who 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.

Follow @LindaNguyenTO on Twitter.

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