Gender Equality in Canadian Politics

By Linda McKay-Panos

This blog article originally appeared in LawNow Vol. 41(1), 2016 and is reprinted with permission.

There is a long-standing concern about the under-representation of women (and minorities) in our political system. There are several theories about why these groups are not reflected in politics in ways that represent their numbers in Canada. The issue has been recognized, and recently, a proposed amendment was introduced in Parliament and received second reading: Bill C-237, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act (gender equity)(First Session, Forty-second Parliament, 64-65 Elizabeth II, 2015-2016). Will this proposed amendment, if implemented, actually result in any change in the gender balance in Parliament?

An American study, “Girls Just Wanna Not Run: The Gender Gap in Young Americans’ Political Ambition” (J. Lawless and R. Fox, American University, School of Public Affairs, 2013; online: http://www.american.edu/spa/wpi/upload/Girls-Just-Wanna-Not-Run_Policy-Report.pdf [1]), cites five reasons why there is a difference between the number of men and women who enter politics. These include:

  • Young men are more likely than young women to have played organized sports and care about winning;
  • Boys are more likely than girls to have been socialized by their parents to think about a career in politics;
  • Young women tend to be exposed ‘to less political information and discussion’ than are young men;
  • Young women generally get less encouragement to run for office than young men do; and
  • Young women consequently are less likely to think they will be qualified to run for office, ‘even in the not-so-near future’.

How will greater gender equity be reached? The amendment to the Canada Elections Act, SC 2000, c 9, will reduce the reimbursement each party receives for its election expenses if there is more than a ten percent difference in the number of male and female candidates on the party’s list of candidates for a general election.

At the same time, the problem of lack of gender equity in Canada does not appear to be the result of prejudice among the electorate (CBC News, “50% population, 25% representation: Why the parliamentary gender gap?” online: http://www.cbc.ca/news2/interactives/women-politics/ [2] (“CBC News”)). The presence of sexual harassment, lack of civility, attention to appearance, speaking style or personal lives, and the male-dominated political culture in Parliament may be a deterrent to some women (CBC News). The older democracies in the world seem to move more slowly towards gender equity than newer democracies, because they are tied to old conventions (CBC News). Finally, there appears to be discrimination by parties in the nomination process (CBC News).

What potential difference will result from greater inclusion of women in politics? Coupled with accountability mechanisms, the inclusion of women in politics would result in differences in the nature of governance and decision-making and the inclusion of gender concerns (Rosa Linda Miranda, “Impact of women’s participation and leadership on outcomes” United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, October 2005 online: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/egm/eql-men/docs/EP.7_rev.pdf [3] ).

How will greater gender equity be reached? The amendment to the Canada Elections Act, SC 2000, c 9, will reduce the reimbursement each party receives for its election expenses if there is more than a ten percent difference in the number of male and female candidates on the party’s list of candidates for a general election. The preamble sets out the reasons for the proposed amendment quite clearly:

  • Whereas Canadians are committed to achieving gender equity in all aspects of political, economic and social life, including representation in Parliament;
  • Whereas equal access to Canada’s democratic institutions is a question of social justice;
  • Whereas women have never held more than 26% of the seats in the House of Commons or constituted more than 29% of the candidates in a federal election since first acquiring the right to run for office in 1920;
  • Whereas the systemic under-representation of women in politics is not caused by a lack of willingness to stand for elected office, but rather by barriers within the process used by political parties to select candidates;
  • Whereas currently, under the Canada Elections Act, political parties are eligible for a reimbursement of up to 50% of their election expenses provided they meet certain conditions and can at any time decline to receive this public subsidy;
  • And whereas all political parties lack an adequate incentive to promote parity in the candidates they nominate for a general election;

When introducing the legislation, MP Kennedy Stewart said (House of Commons Debates 42 Parl, 1st Sess, No 148 (10 May 2016) at 1835):

Despite electing a record number of88 women MPs in the 2015 election, women currently hold only 26% of the seats in this place, meaning that almost three out of every four MPs is male. As a result, Canada ranks 61st out of 191 countries when it comes to the proportion of women elected to Parliament. That is not a proud record. It positions us behind countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and El Salvador, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

What is worse is that we are dropping like a stone in those international league tables. In 1991, we were ranked 21st in the world in terms of the proportion of seats held by women, but have since been passed by 40 countries who now elect more women to the legislature than we do. Although Canadian women were granted the right to vote almost 100 years ago, it might take us until 2075, which is another 60 years, for women to hold half the seats in our Parliament if we continue at this current rate. Throughout history, only 6% of the seats in the House of Commons have ever been held by women. This needs to change. This is more than mere statistics. These numbers mean something.

He goes on to state the reasons why so few women are elected or selected as candidates (House of Commons Debates 42 Parl, 1st Sess, No 148 (10 May 2016) at 1835):

The reason so few women are elected to Parliament is that parties nominate so few women to stand as candidates. More than enough women put their names forward to stand as candidates. Therefore, there is not a lack of supply of women to run in half of the 338 ridings in Canada. This makes sense. After all, we have 18 million women in Canada. Parties need only 169 women candidates to present a balanced slate. I do not think anyone can argue that parties would be unable to find 169 qualified, deserving women candidates.

The reason so few women are selected as candidates is bias within the nomination processes used by political parties. In many cases, party officials and selectors are biased toward selecting men over women, because they think men candidates have a better chance of winning elections. It has nothing to do with merit. The merit argument has been thoroughly discredited in the academic literature. Not only do more than enough women come forward to run for office, they are usually more credentialed than their male competitors. The idea of merit is now seen as a mere cover to disguise patriarchal values, that is, systematic preference for men over women.

Mr. Stewart notes that over 100 countries have passed laws on gender equity, with many of them being coercive. By way of comparison, the proposed legislation is considered to be an incentive rather than a punishment. He also notes that in countries where such incentives are used, there have been significant increases of women in Parliament. For example, in Ireland, which has a single transferrable voting system that is different than Canada’s, a similar law resulted in an increase of 90% in women candidates and a 40% increase in the number of women elected to the Irish Parliament (House of Commons Debates 42 Parl, 1st Sess, No 148 (10 May 2016) at 1840).

While the other parties seemed to be supportive generally, the bill was criticized for not including other minority groups (Mr. Mark Gerretsen(House of Commons Debates 42 Parl, 1st Sess, No 148 (10 May 2016) at 1850). Perhaps it could be a model for future inclusion.

It will be interesting to see if this bill is actually passed. And, if it is, whether the parties will take advantage of the incentives it includes. It appears as though any change in incentives will also have to be coupled by changes in our socialization of females. Finally, if the number of women in Parliament increases, it will be interesting to note any changes that result in Canada’s democracy.