OTTAWA -- Helle Bank Jorgensen remembered being asked one day whether the company she owns was certified as a woman-owned business.
"Yep! Last time I checked," she said with a laugh as she peered down at her chest through the top of her blouse.
She said she soon discovered the question was really about whether the business she owns, Toronto-based B.Accountability, which advises companies on corporate sustainability, had received the stamp of approval from a certification body designed to promote female-owned firms.
"I had no idea," she said.
Now, that idea is getting a bigger spotlight -- and some government support.
On International Women's Day, the Liberal government announced $858,500 for a project that could end up creating a certification system to let Canadians know how well companies are doing when it comes to gender equality.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talked up the connection between gender equality and economic growth, which was a major theme in the Feb. 27 budget, during an event Thursday in Toronto.
"When businesses are more diverse, they are also more productive and more profitable," Trudeau said.
The three-year project led by the UN's Global Compact Network Canada will involve working with the private sector to develop a plan to get rid of the barriers women face in the workplace, including better policies on sexual harassment and balancing a job with caring for a family.
Bank Jorgensen, who is president of the network, said one of the goals is to find a way for companies to measure themselves against a set of gender-equality standards, similar to how some buildings can now be certified for their environmentally friendly design.
"Companies want to be recognized for the good things that they do," she said.
The Liberals have already made moves in this area by working to ensure bidders from diverse backgrounds -- including businesses that are majority-owned, operated and controlled by women, visible minorities, Indigenous Peoples, or others facing discrimination -- can access government contracts.
The City of Toronto brought in a social procurement policy as part of its poverty-reduction strategy in 2016.
The U.S. has had such supplier diversity policies, sometimes referred to as social procurement, at the municipal, state and federal level since the 1960s.
Bank Jorgensen said she envisions a broader approach when it comes to the certification system that could grow from this project, because looking only at whether a business is owned by women would be too limiting for bigger, publicly traded companies.
"You can't go out to a company on the stock exchange and say, 'Oh, you have 49.9 per cent male investors, so now sorry, no more (men) can invest,"' she said Thursday. "Before we can all get certification, we need to figure out what does success look like? What is it that we are looking for?"
Status of Women Minister Maryam Monsef said that in Canada, women hold only one-fifth of the positions on corporate boards and the funding is also meant to help companies develop ideas on how to improve those statistics, as well as increase the number of women at all levels.
"This project is a reminder, too, that it's not just up to civil society or government to do this work," she said.
-- With files from Peter Goffin in Toronto