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Kellie Leitch, minister responsible for the status of women (left) said the federal government has already surpassed the report’s recommended 30-per-cent level for its own appointments to boards and agencies, and is aspiring to go higher, but is not going to mandate parity.JOHN WOODS/The Globe and Mail

A federal advisory council of business leaders has recommended that Canadian companies should set a target to have 30 per cent female board members within five years, but has rejected any new regulatory requirements or quotas.

The council – a group of 26 executives mandated to advise the government on strategies to bolster women on boards in Canada – also suggested the federal government work toward greater gender balance in its own appointments at agencies and Crown corporations, saying it would help create a bigger pool of experienced women who could be tapped by the private sector. Currently 31 per cent of federal governor-in-council appointments are women.

Federal Status of Women minister Kellie Leitch released the council's report at a media event in Toronto on Thursday, and was asked about the timing of the release as controversy swirls about remarks by federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay about women. Mr. MacKay told an Ontario lawyers group there is a shortage of female judges because women do not apply for the jobs due to their special bond with their young children.

"We've been planning on this report for a long time – our advisory board was put in place in 2012," Ms. Leitch said. "The reason we're launching this today is because this is good for business and this is good for the Canadian economy."

She also offered a defence of Mr. MacKay, saying he has been an advocate for women.

"What I do know is that Peter MacKay has championed many women, some of whom are now federal court judges and individuals who have come up through the [Judicial Advisory Committee] system," she said.

The report says publicly traded companies in Canada should set targets to try to achieve 30 per cent women on their boards by 2019, and should voluntary disclose annually to their shareholders what their targets are and whether they have made progress toward them.

It does not propose that the federal government create any rules to compel such disclosure, but Ms. Leitch said she would meet with CEOs of companies in federally regulated industry sectors such as banking and transportation to urge them to adopt the standards.

"It takes leadership – a nudge and a push, and making sure that there are timelines and reporting," she said.

The report says women account for 10.3 per cent of directors on corporate boards in Canada.

The Ontario Securities Commission has released proposed new rules to require companies to explain their approach to diversity on their boards and in senior management ranks, or explain why they have opted not to make the disclosure.

It is the only province to so far create disclosure rules about board diversity, but Ms. Leitch said OSC chairman Howard Wetston told her more provinces are also expected to introduce similar guidelines. She said she could not reveal which other provinces are expected to participate.

OSC spokeswoman Carolyn Shaw-Rimmington confirmed other provinces will be publishing rule changes next week, but would not comment further.

Ms. Leitch said the federal government has already surpassed the report's recommended 30-per-cent level for its own appointments to boards and agencies, and is aspiring to go higher, but is not going to mandate parity. Quebec is the only jurisdiction in Canada with a rule requiring gender parity on boards of its agencies.

"The long term goal is gender parity," Ms. Leitch said.

Alex Johnston, executive director of women's advocacy group Catalyst Canada, who was an ex-officio member of the advisory committee, said Canada has fallen behind other peer countries such as Australia and Britain in its representation of women in senior roles, even though there is a large supply of qualified women in Canada who are available for boards.

"This report is about increasing demand – not supply, but demand," she said.

Michael Cooper, chief executive officer of real estate development firm Dream Unlimited Corp., told the press conference he believes appointing more women leads to better companies.

"Everything we do in this area we do with a mercenary attitude to enhance our own benefits and profitability, and I think that's what makes it sustainable," he said. "I wonder where the other leaders are that they don't know successful women."

Mr. Cooper was not a member of the advisory committee but hosted the announcement at his company's Toronto office. Women account for four of seven positions on the Dream board.

"The 30 per cent target is not a bad thing, however we will not reduce the percentage of women on our board to meet it," he joked.

Editor's Note: The Ontario Securities Commission is not releasing the final draft of its rules for board diversity next week. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story.