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Prime Minister Stephen Harper (R) and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty (L) walk to the House of Commons to deliver the budget on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail

The federal government is taking its first steps to promote women on corporate boards of directors, announcing it will create a new advisory council of business leaders to promote the cause.

The advisory council was outlined in Thursday's federal budget, but there was little detail about the council's mandate. The budget said it will work with the private sector to "link corporations to a network of women with professional skills and experience."

The budget noted women have reached senior ranks in business, but remain a small minority of corporate directors.

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"Increasing opportunities for women to serve on corporate boards makes good business sense for Canadian women and for Canada's economy," it said.

The initiative is the Tory government's first policy initiative to promote women on private sector boards, and comes as countries around the world increasingly are adopting programs requiring mandatory quotas or voluntary targets for women on boards. The United States now requires disclosure of companies' strategies to bolster board diversity.

Beatrix Dart, executive director of the Initiative for Women in Business program at the University of Toronto, said it is "terrific" to see the government supporting an initiative to get more women on boards.

"The private sector has not been successful in moving the numbers of women on corporate boards, so more persuasion with government help seems to be in order – and might be the last straw before the political climate will swing towards quota for women on board as they have done in some European countries," she said Thursday.

Liberal Senator Céline Hervieux-Payette has tabled a private member's Senate bill calling for quotas for women on boards in Canada, but the proposal has not won the support of the Conservative government, which does not support mandatory quotas.

The budget appears to outline the government's preferred option, announcing that Rona Ambrose, Minister for Status of Women, will work with the private sector to create the advisory council of leaders from the private and public sectors. There was no indication whether people have been identified yet to serve on the council.

A recent census of directors by advocacy group Catalyst found women comprise just 14.5 per cent of directors on Canada's 500 largest company boards – including private companies and Crown corporations – and just 10.3 per cent of directors on the boards of publicly traded companies. Even worse, the study found the percentage of publicly traded companies with no women on their boards weakened to 46.2 per cent in 2011 from 44.9 per cent two years earlier.

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