Numbers compiled by the federal Liberals and New Democrats show Canada has fewer women running government agencies and Crown corporations, sitting on boards and working in management roles than under the previous Liberal government, which hit 37 per cent in 2005.
The parties released the numbers – based on tallies released by the federal government – after the governing Conservatives put out a series of recommendations last week aimed at encouraging private sector companies to put more women on their own boards.
Status of Women Minister Kellie Leitch told reporters at the time that the government is 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," she said last Thursday, 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."
The 31 per cent Leitch referred to includes federal deputy ministers and associate deputy ministers promoted to the most senior posts in the civil service. Breaking out the appointments made to Crown corporation boards and executive roles lowers the rate.
Women hold less than one-third of senior roles
Of 43 Crown corporations, only 11 women in the past five years have been appointed to lead them — and only six are currently led by women.
Only 22.6 per cent of director positions on the boards of Crown corporations are filled by women, according to the Liberal Party's calculation, and women occupy only 31.6 per cent of senior management positions. That's 107 out of 473 directorships and 165 out of 522 senior managers.
The NDP included three additional agencies, so the totals provided by the two parties vary slightly.
The numbers given to Ashton by each Crown corporation also vary slightly from the totals provided by the Conservatives to CBC News, which came through Status of Women Canada.
The New Democrats calculated the number of women in Crown corporation director roles at 27 per cent, with 30.3 per cent of senior management roles filled by women as of April 2014. That's 191 women among 631 senior managers and 119 female directors out of 440 board appointments.
The NDP numbers are based on information provided by the Conservatives in response to an Order Paper Question tabled by the NDP's status of women critic, Niki Ashton. The Liberals based their numbers on that response, as well as on the government's appointments website.
Ashton said the numbers show a disconnect between what Leitch said last week when she released the recommendations for corporate Canada.
"What it really speaks to is the lack of leadership from this government. We hear a lot of rhetoric on participation at the board level and at leadership levels, and the government could be making a real statement by setting the bar high and appointing women to Crown corporation boards and supporting the appointments of heads of Crown corporations to meet the goal of 50 per cent," Ashton said in an interview with CBC News.
'This is not progress'
Ashton said she supports quotas to get gender parity on federally appointed boards.
"Nobody is saying that there aren't enough qualified women out there. In fact, the statistics in the report itself indicate that women are graduating at higher levels, you have more women than we've ever had graduating with MBAs and backgrounds in management fields.... This is not about a lack of merit or a lack of qualified women. This is about a lack of leadership," Ashton said.
Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett, chair of the national Liberal women's caucus, said the government is rightfully trying to encourage the private sector to increase the number of women on its boards, but that federal appointments are going backwards.
"This is not progress," she said in an interview with CBC News.
"Compared to the Liberal record, these are going down."
Bennett said it doesn't ring true to argue the government can't find any qualified women.
"I would like to hear the government to say at least we've got to do better ... From 35 per cent [under the Liberals in 2005] to 22 per cent is clearly in the wrong direction and we should absolutely be aiming to parity when women are 47 per cent of the workforce," she said.
"I don't think it should be a partisan issue, but I do think that the government has no credibility when they use words like 'outstandingly well' for what's ended up a reduction in the numbers."
'Constantly aspiring for higher'
A spokesman for Leitch said the varying term-lengths of governor-in-council appointments can have an impact on how often the government can change the composition of boards.
The Conservatives have been in office for more than eight years.
"The trend has been steady over the last few years and we are constantly aspiring for higher," Leitch spokesman Andrew McGrath said in an email to CBC News.
"As of 2013, 29 [per cent] of Crown corporation appointees were women; and nearly 40 [per cent] of deputy ministers and associate deputy ministers in federal departments were women."
McGrath said women held more than 55 per cent of federal public service jobs in 2013, with 46 per cent of public service executive jobs held by women. McGrath said the number of women in executive jobs is nearly triple what it was under the federal Liberals and the number of women in federal public service jobs is up 13 percentage points from the 1980s.
Public service jobs and promotions are awarded by senior civil servants and not by cabinet ministers.
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