Efforts to promote women in business lead to first all-women trade mission

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OTTAWA — Look at photos of overseas trade missions in recent years and you’ll see the same thing: mostly men in dark suits, grinning for the cameras. But one trip bound for Brazil this weekend is looking to change the image.

Status of Women Minister Kellie Leitch is leading the first-ever trade mission exclusively for Canadian businesswomen.

Ten women — including physicians, vice-presidents of Lockheed Martin and BlackBerry and the head of a major Alberta egg farm — will join Leitch on the three-day trip to Sao Paulo.

“We have to create this phenomenon that it’s ordinary for women to be in these roles and it is ordinary to work for a woman who is in these roles,” she said in an interview.

“And I think that’s very powerful and that’s what we’re doing.”

The trip is latest in a series of initiatives led by Leitch, who is also the minister of labour, that seeks to broaden the focus of Status of Women beyond its four-decades-only function primarily as a granting agency of the government.

The 2015 budget contained a pledge to rewrite the rules to force publicly listed companies to get more women on their boards or explain why they can’t and also a commitment to supporting more mentorship and business opportunities for female entrepreneurs, though no money was announced.

A project to get more women involved in the skilled trades is also in the works.

“My agency would say these are non-traditional roles for women,” Leitch said. “My father says they are just good jobs.”

In 2009, the word ‘woman’ wasn’t even mentioned in the budget. The following year, things began to change, with the appointment of Rona Ambrose to the head of the portfolio.

Ambrose said she never thought she’d be advocating for women in the corporate sector; her background was working with disadvantaged communities and she didn’t consider executives to be part of that group.

But as she began to be presented with research about why women weren’t joining more corporate boards, she grew angry, she said.

“I became infuriated with this idea that there are no women in the pipeline that are good enough to sit on a corporate board in Canada, and that it’s somehow tokenism and there’s no argument for good business here.”

Ambrose received the blessing of former finance minister Jim Flaherty to take on the issue, but quickly realized giving speeches wasn’t good enough. “It has to be in the budget, because it has to be an economic message.”

She went back to Flaherty and the 2012 budget announced the creation of an advisory council to promote the participation of women on corporate boards.

The panel didn’t get up and running until 2013. That summer, Leitch took over the portfolio. The panel’s subsequent report, released in 2014, lay the groundwork for many of the projects Leitch now has on the go.

But the 2012 announcement was a landmark — it was the first time since the Conservatives took power that there was a new Status of Women initiative included in the budget.

The year they took office, the Conservatives had actually gutted the operational budget for the agency and rewrote all the rules for grants and contributions, saying they would no longer fund advocacy work or research.

That’s why the Conservatives’ efforts don’t entirely ring true for the New Democrats.

The government rejected an NDP private member’s bill to increase the number of women on the boards of Crown corporations, while at the same time promoting their own efforts, said Mylene Freeman, the NDP women’s critic.

“It’s all part of their business focus without really investing in the actually tackling the actual inequalities — the fact that most women can’t afford childcare, or the fact that the pay gap still exists,” Freeman said.

Follow @StephanieLevitz on Twitter

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press

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