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International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Christine Lagarde (L) listens to Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, September 13, 2016.CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

The head of the International Monetary Fund wants Canada to know that its government is doing all the right things to reinvigorate its stalled economic growth prospects. Well, except for one nagging issue: Where are all the women?

During her visit to Toronto and Ottawa this week, Christine Lagarde sang Canada's praises for embracing an economic strategy that pushes so many of the big buttons that the IMF has identified: Its increased fiscal spending; its focus on infrastructure investment; its commitment to further trade liberalization; its embrace of immigration; its progress on structural reforms aimed at removing barriers to productivity growth; its pursuit of carbon pricing. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would be hard-pressed to find a bigger fan.

But as she wrapped up her Canadian trip, Ms. Lagarde, one of the most powerful female economic voices in the world, published a blog post on the IMF's website taking issue with Canada's under-representation of women in its labour force. Quite aside from gender-equality issues, she said, it's just bad economics; by not adequately clearing a path for more women to work, the country is leaving a sizable chunk of economic growth on the table.

"If [Canada's] current gap … between male and female labour force participation were eliminated, the level of real GDP could be about 4.5 per cent higher today," Ms. Lagarde said, citing estimates from an upcoming IMF study.

Ms. Lagarde's blog amounted to a public challenge to Mr. Trudeau to put his money where his gender-equality mouth is – to incorporate the theme into his economic strategy as he has in his political strategy.

The latest numbers from Statistics Canada show that women's labour force participation rate (that is, the proportion who are either employed or actively seeking work) is 61 per cent, well below the 70 per cent among men. For those in their prime working years – 25 to 54 – the female participation rate is 82 per cent, versus 91 per cent for men. Female participation in Canada's work force has, indeed, increased dramatically over the past several decades – the overall rate was below 50 per cent as late as 1979 – but that masks the undeniable stalling of that trend in recent years; participation hasn't improved one iota over the past decade.

The need to tap into this underused pool of labour is becoming increasingly pressing. In a speech in London Wednesday in which Bank of Canada senior deputy governor Carolyn Wilkins outlined the risks to financial stability posed by the world's stubbornly slow growth path, she noted that the central bank's estimate of Canada's potential growth – i.e. the amount by which the economy can increase its output annually without squeezing its capacity and triggering inflation – has slowed to a thin 1.5 per cent annually. (A decade ago, it was more like 2.5 per cent.) And she identified the sluggish pace of labour supply growth as a major reason for that decidedly tepid economic potential.

Canada, like pretty much every other advanced economy, faces a dramatic slowdown in labour growth as the enormous baby boomer generation is entering retirement in ever-increasing numbers. In the early 1970s, the labour force was growing by more than 4 per cent annually; last year, it grew just 0.8 per cent. And Statistics Canada has projected that it will slow even more over the next decade. Given that labour growth has historically accounted for roughly two-thirds of potential growth (the rest coming from productivity gains), this presents a massive obstacle to keeping the economy rolling.

In the face of this, the proportion of working-age women who are outside the work force presents relatively low-hanging fruit: A pool of well-educated, skilled labour that is already here, right in front of us, an untapped supply to feed economic growth. (Indeed, Ms. Lagarde noted that in 2015, more Canadian women received university degrees than men.)

One issue Ms. Lagarde points to in unlocking this female labour pool is addressing Canada's wage gap between men and women, which remains "well above" the average for the countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. More equitable pay would surely provide an incentive to attract more women to the work force.

But the more critical area for policy reform, Ms. Lagarde argued, concerns childcare, where Canada's spending "still falls short of that in many advanced economies." Indeed, IMF research shows a very high correlation between childcare and early-childhood-education spending and female labour force participation.

Unquestionably, a substantial expansion of Canada's government-subsidized childcare would carry a daunting cost for a federal government that has already gone significantly into the red to fund its infrastructure strategy. But much like the infrastructure commitment, it's a critical investment if Canada's economy is going to overcome the demographic mountain before it. The price of such programs may prove a drop in the bucket, compared with the economic price of leaving the country's pool of female workers on the sidelines.