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Underrepresentation of Women in Canadian Politics

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 3540 words Published: 28th Jul 2017

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“In November 2015, new PM Justin Trudeau made headlines around the world when he chose a cabinet made up of 50% women. Yet this in fact constituted only 30% of the women Liberal MPs elected in 2015. In the 2015 federal election Canadians elected 88 female MPs, or 26% of all MPs in the House. But this represented only a 1% increase from 2011, when 25% of all MPs elected were women”. As we can see from this analysis, although PM Trudeau seemed to have figured out a way to bridge the gender gap, it however is only a percentage better than that of women representation in parliament back in 2011. Till today the representation of women in politics is still quite low. Canada is currently ranked 62nd amongst the 193 countries included in the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s classification (IPU, 2017). Around the globe there has been progress when it comes to the aspect of bridging the gender gap in politics but Canada has remained stagnant for a very long time even though there have been some periods of progress. The Trudeau government now currently holds the record for greatest percentage of women representation in Canada but this still isn’t enough to make significant progress. In this paper, I will be looking at the underrepresentation of women in Canadian politics, as well as reasons for this gender inequality in Canadian politics and barriers to the election of females into politics. In addition to this I will also touch on reforms that could be made to the political system to encourage more women to enter politics.

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A useful guide to understanding how political candidates are chosen is the demand and supply framework outlined by Pippa Norris and Joni Lovenduski. “The demand side being the demand for political candidates by political parties, and the supply side on the other hand is the supply of political candidates that is the result of individual decisions to stand for election. That is the supply of individuals willing and able to step forward to stand for office” (Brenda O’Neill, 2015). The demand side, which is the selected candidates, suggests that the selected candidate must be the candidate with the least risk, that is, the candidate most likely to win the seat. The electoral system practiced in Canada (the first-past-the-post system) is the cause of this mentality. The electoral system being a winner take all system ensures that political parties have to put forth their best candidates in order to challenge for the seat. Existing networks and past experiences have set a standard for the perception of the right candidate and this has influenced choices towards candidates who meet the perception of who is most likely to win. The masculinized environment of Canadian politics that privileges power and competition hinders women from getting into politics because politicians are seen to be assertive, active, and self-confident, all these being male stereotypes. Women would have to go against their stereotypes in order to be selected for seat. Women who go into politics tend to be seen as less feminine than other women but not as masculine as men. They are defined by what they lack, femininity and specific masculine traits (Melanee Thomas, 2013).  There is no safe place for women who go into politics, they will be criticized one way or the other. Another reason for the under representation of women in Canadian politics is the concept of sacrificial lambs, women who are nominated to run in ridings where the party is not competitive (Melanee Thomas/Marc Andre Bodet, 2013). The continuing competitiveness of Canadian politics helps notice the effect of the sacrificial lamb hypothesis. “Parties are more likely to nominate men than women to run in districts that they believe can be won” (Brenda O’Neill, 2015). Another point to consider as to why women are under represented is the fact that party systems vary. Parties on the right side of the ideological spectrum have refused to make special opportunities to help enhance women representation. Some examples of these right winged parties with poor women representation; the Wildrose Party in the 2012 Alberta election had 13% female representation; in the 2014 Ontario election, the PC Party had 25% female representation (Brenda O’Neill, 2015). The left side of the spectrum in contrast to the right has created sufficient opportunities to enhance female representation. The New Democratic Party in the 2012 Alberta election had 47% female representation and 48% back in 2009 (Brenda O’Neill, 2015). The supply side; an important factor affecting the supply of women is gender norms. In society, today, the expectations from women is quite different to that of men. They both have varying public and private roles. Men are seen to be the bread winners, that is, the person who brings income into the family, so they are brought up in a brute and disciplined manner, they are pressured to go to school in order to get a job in future which would help sustain their families. Females on the other hand are raised in a more pampered manner because they are seen to be more delicate than men and they have specific duties like taking care of their children which require extreme care and attention. “Gender norms shape everything in society, from the education and occupations women and men choose to the level of political interest and knowledge that they exhibit” (Brenda O’Neill, 2015). Along with the existing societal norms comes the willingness of women to participate in politics. Women feel that since the society doesn’t deem them fit they shouldn’t try to contest for candidacy if not they’ll just attract unnecessary back lash from both society and the media. Another factor affecting the supply of women is time. As mentioned earlier, according to norms, women are meant to take care of their children and this eats up a huge amount of their leisure time, especially those women working full time. Research on leisure time availability shows some slight difference between women and men. Women’s leisure time is eaten up by child care and unpaid domestic chores while men have theirs eaten up by extra working hours (Melanee Thomas, 2013). In addition to this, research shows that women are less interested in politics than men, so this low level of interest might hamper their willingness to run. And politics being a “blood game” causes for women to shy away from it. This low level of interest by women in political participation is quite problematic. It is problematic for three reasons. First, “women are a historically underrepresented group” (Melanee Thomas, 2013). In the past, they were blocked from access to political activities because it was seen as something women weren’t built for and therefore could not handle. Although these barriers affecting women representation have been removed over time, informal barriers such as media still hamper women representation. These informal barriers stop the Canadian political system from being just and fair. The second reason is that “women are a heterogeneous group with a diversity of political opinions and preferences” (Melanee Thomas, 2013). They view situations in a different light than men. However, due to the small number of representatives and activists, it is quite impossible for all these diverse political opinions to be represented. The final reason being the result of research. “Research shows that in the legislature, women’s and men’s decision-making behaviour changes with the gender composition of that group” (Melanee Thomas, 2013). So, men paired alongside women are more likely to have outcomes that represent both male and female perspectives towards the situation at hand unlike a team made up exclusively of men. Women are more likely to prioritize the wellbeing of the people first and this might affect the society as a whole while men who are more straightforward in making decisions, not looking at how the people would be affected but at how the society will benefit in the long run.

This current low participation rate of women in Canadian politics makes us aware of the fact that there are still some barriers hindering women from participating. These barriers exist at the individual, social, and political levels (Melanee Thomas, 2013). Individual barriers include, education and income. Over time, women rights have been advocated for to bridge the existing inequality gap. “The earliest studies of political behaviour argued that as women’s level of education, income, and occupational status caught up to men’s, so to should their levels of political participation and engagement” (Melanee Thomas, 2013). This phenomenon is known as the pipeline theory of political representation. This theory assumes that “once women take on the same occupations, have similar levels of education, and earn similar incomes to men, their numbers as legislators would naturally increase” (Brenda O’Neill, 2015). This has not been the case though. Women remain underrepresented and the education of women has sky rocketed compared to back in the days but women are pushed towards more feminine areas of study such as family studies, catering, social services, etc. Only a few go into areas of study which would then lead them into politics and this causes for the underrepresentation in the upper echelon of many professions despite the overall education gains. Women still earn lower than men in todays society. Women in comparison to men earn 80 cents to each dollar a man earns.  The lack of campaign finance regulations makes income a barrier. “Some provinces and municipalities lack regulation and this requires for candidates to rely on conventional sources of campaign finance, including personal income” (Melanee Thomas, 2013). This reliance on personal income therefore affects women because they don’t earn as much as men.

Social barriers are raised from societal views. As mentioned earlier, women’s progress in politics is hampered by the views of society. This view that well paying jobs and jobs that require critical thinking are more masculine. These societal views have pushed women away from these jobs because they do not see themselves as capable of handling those types of jobs. And these jobs are the jobs which most Members of Parliaments held before going into politics. “The top occupation for Canadian Parliamentarians in 2011 was businessman. This job does not appear in top 10 for women parliamentarians. Instead, the women who enter politics are most likely to be teachers and consultants” (Melanee Thomas, 2013). The media is a major social barrier. They perceive women politicians in a discriminatory light. They feel like they are not fit for the positions which they hold and so they (the press) tend to pick on these women politicians. “Women’s personal relationships and physical appearance receive far more scrutiny from the press and other politicians than do male colleagues, and the tone of the press coverage women politicians receive is disproportionately negative” (Melanee Thomas, 2013).

After exceeding individual and social barriers, women still have to face political barriers. These political barriers being nomination procedures. Political parties have varying nomination processes. The Conservative Party has very few formal nomination rules. The NDP on the other hand, has a very formal nomination process. Formal nomination processes help with the representation of women in politics, that is because these processes require to seek out qualified candidates from historically underrepresented groups. However, the right-wing parties are the ones in competition for the seat and they are also the majority so they choose to pick out the best possible candidate due to the winner take all nature of the electoral system. And the best possible candidate based on the standards set by history would be a male. The candidate would most likely be male as politics is a masculinized environment and males should be accustomed to such an environment as they were brought up for living in such an environment (Melanee Thomas, 2013). So, there is a gender bias when it comes to nomination processes. Parties on the left wing of the ideological spectrum (NDP) assist in women representation but in some cases, the strength of women representation held by these parties still leave women underrepresented. “provinces with electorally strong parties on the left of the ideological spectrum will often reveal greater gender equality. BC, Quebec, and Manitoba, for example, have enjoyed strong showings amongst parties on the left and rank among the top provinces for women representation in politics. However, Saskatchewan, despite the strength of the NDP in the province, does less well” (Brenda O’Neill, 2015).

A lot of research has gone into figuring out how to deal with this continuing underrepresentation and some solutions have been brought up to help fill in the existing gender gap.  A major solution that has been proposed is, the reform of the political system. This would help encourage more women to enter politics. A change to the current electoral system would be in favour of women representation. The current electoral system practiced in Canada is the first-past-the-post system and this being a winner takes all system is sort of masculinized therefore making sure that political parties view male candidates as the most suitable candidates in such an environment. This discourages women representation. Many of those advocating for reform seem to prefer the proportional representation system. “Most countries where women occupy at least 30% of the parliamentary seats use the PR system” (Julie Cool, 2011). However, the PR system might not benefit women representation. The PR system where the most widely used form is the list system may contain a lot of bias when these lists are being made. People use their own discretion to choose the names that appear on the list and nothing says that those selecting the names on the list would look to balancing gender inequality when there are more pressing issues, like the well being of the society, to focus on. PR systems need to be supplemented with more incentives in order to ensure impartiality on party lists.

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While some people believe electoral reform is an efficient means of bridging the inequality gap in parliament, others believe that slight electoral change would be better off. That is, Canada would function the same but with new additional rules that enable them better women representation. Some of these additional rules might include the introduction of quotas. Majority of the countries that reached the 30% mark for women representation in parliament used quotas (22 of 30 countries as at 2009). “The core idea behind quota systems is to recruit women into political positions and to ensure that women are not only a few tokens in political life” (Drude Dahlerup, 2009). These quotas can either be legislative or voluntary. “Legal quotas are mandated in a country’s constitution or by law, usually in the electoral law. All political parties must abide by legal quotas, and may be subject to sanctions in case of non-compliance. Costa Rica, Belgium and Argentina have legislated quotas, which specify that a certain percentage of candidates for election must be women. There are firm legal sanctions in place if the provisions are not met” (Julie Cool, 2011). Voluntary quotas on the other hand are developed at the discretion of political parties. Other additional rules proposed to help women representation were the introduction of spending limits on nomination campaigns, and tax credits for contributions to support prospective candidates seeking nomination. These rules were to aid women in the aspect of income.  (Julie Cool, 2011).

Lastly, the introduction of campaign schools for women and a change in political environment. Women should be encouraged to enrol into campaign schools. These campaign schools help women to be better prepared for the tough nature of the political realm. It teaches these women how to portray themselves and fight against the barriers which stand in their way. These campaign schools are developed mainly by women or equality organizations, based on consultation from academics, civil servants, and elected officials. Some organizations that host these campaign schools in Canada are, the Nova Scotia Advisory Council, Equal Voice Canadian Women Voters Congress, and the College of Continuing Education at Dalhousie University. Although a systematic study on full effects of these campaign schools has not been undertaken in Canada, we can see that they have made significant impact in bridging the inequality gap in places like America (Melanee Thomas, 2013). Alongside these campaign schools there should also be a change in political environment in Canada. It has to be more of a women-friendly environment. The political system being highly masculinized blocks women from freely participating in politics and this causes for the masses in Canada to question the democratic status of the country. “Special attention to the values, norms, rules, procedures, and practices in parliament should ensure that, once they are elected, women can apply their unique and diverse perspectives” (Julie Cool, 2011). Among other options, parliaments could consider reorganizing their work to become more gender-sensitive, for example, by instituting family-friendly hours, ending parliamentary business at a reasonable time; reorganizing work schedules to allow for “family days”; or spreading parliamentary business over a number of shorter days” (Julie Cool, 2011).

Canada has remained stagnant in women representation for a very long time and it is about time to move on from this stagnation. Canada’s electoral system doesn’t work in favor of women because it is very masculinized and at the same time a very difficult job. This however defies the status of democracy that Canada holds. In a democracy, everyone is equal but this is not so as women are discriminated against and stereotyped as not being suitable for politics, and those who manage to get into politics are criticized as not being feminine enough and at the same time not cutting the mark for masculinity. Media bashes women politicians for the littlest of reasons, and this is because there is this established view that women are more suited for the home and not jobs that require aggression and critical thinking. All these existing barriers have then led to women looking down on themselves feeling that they are not capable of handling the nature of such a difficult job. However, we need to realize that we cannot just bring women into politics just because we want to bridge the gender gap. They have to work for it, just as hard as their male counterparts did. So instead of trying to advocate for a women’s agenda in parliament, we should work towards the development of workable, sustainable, dynamic strategies to increase women representation in politics.


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  • Myrna Driedger, “Is there such a thing as a Women’s Agenda in Parliament?,” Canadian Parliamentary Review (Spring 2013), vol. 36:1, pp. 11-12


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