A record 88 women were elected in the 2015 federal election, up from 76 in 2011. The increase represents a modest gain in terms of representation, with women now accounting for 26 per cent of the seats in the House. The following feature — which was initially published before the election — examines the gender imbalance in Canadian politics.

Canadian women held just one-quarter of the seats in the House of Commons when the writ dropped back in August. This figure places us 50th in a recent international ranking of women in parliaments.

The 41st Canadian Parliament featured 77 women MPs, with a record 12 female ministers in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet.

The NDP's success in Quebec during the 2011 federal election largely triggered the uptick in the number of women in Parliament, with the proportion rising to 25 per cent from 22 per cent in the 2008 election.

In spite of this, a large gender gap persists after decades of relative stagnation in Canada's House of Commons. Women comprise just 33 per cent of the candidates from the five leading parties in this election.

“There is no doubt that in the old democracies, including Canada, there is stagnation,” said Drude Dahlerup, a political scientist from the University of Stockholm who has consulted in countries such as Tunisia and Sierra Leone on gender equality in parliament.

“We have this perception that gender equality should come naturally. Our research shows that is not necessarily a fact.”

Women elected in Canadian general elections, 1921-2015

  • election year
  • total seats
  • women elected
  • female representation

Old democracies don't favour ‘gender shocks’

There is significant growth in women representatives in what Dahlerup calls "fast-track" countries — places that have experienced recent conflict or are a new democracy.

In fact, some of the countries outpacing Canada in terms of parliamentary gender equality include Rwanda, Bolivia, Iraq and Kazakhstan.

Newer democracies like Bolivia can experience a gender shock as it did in an October 2014 election, rising from 22 per cent to 53 per cent women in the lower house.

Older democracies take the incremental approach, which is slower and involves grappling with the conventions of older institutions.

Women in national parliaments

Countries ranked by percentage of women in the lower or single House, as of September 1, 2015.

1. Rwanda (80 seats, 51 women) 63.8% 2. Bolivia (130 seats, 69 women) 53.1% 3. Cuba (612 seats, 299 women) 48.9% 4. Seychelles (32 seats, 14 women) 43.8% 5. Sweden (349 seats, 152 women) 43.6% 50. Canada (304 seats, 77 women) 25.3%

Source: Inter-Parliamentary Union

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Louise Carbert, a political scientist from Dalhousie University, thinks there is an opportunity in this election.

“This next election is crucial because it promises to feature a higher-than-usual turnover rate of incumbents. Many MPs are retiring. Since most incumbent MPs are men, their departure creates more open seats. And open seats present an opportunity for new women candidates coming into the competition.”

Open seats may be opportunities, but following the international precedent, more dramatic reforms may be required to aid in the push to equality.

Both the Liberals and NDP would look to electoral reforms including versions of proportional representation if they form government.

According to Dahlerup, proportional representation fosters gender equality and makes it easier to enforce quota policies. Parties can then compile candidate lists and ensure that they are gender equal.

In Sweden, for example, this is achieved through alternating the gender of each successive candidate.

In the aforementioned Bolivian election, there was a proviso that women would be slotted first, thereby ensuring representation in the instance of a party with only one seat.

“In many old democracies you have a resistance to any kind of special treatment or a quota system,” said Dahlerup.

Dahlerup has also observed the effectiveness of gender quota systems. Some variations include going as far as sanctioning a party in the event that it does not diversify its candidate list to a predetermined mark, as is the case in France.

Kellie Leitch, the current minister on the status of women, takes the Conservative Party position that quotas are not the answer.

“When you earn your place at the table, you're respected and your views are respected. When you're the [quota] number you're put at the table… and therefore your voice is not heard.”

While other parties are more open to setting goals to encourage diversity, quota wariness is not unique to the Conservative Party. The NDP and Liberal Party opt to set targets for women candidates without enforcing quotas.

“It is interesting how similar the arguments are all over the world. If everything is fair in society, then of course gender quotas would be a violation of the liberal democracy,” said Dahlerup.

“You have to ask the question: how qualified are the men who sit in 80 per cent of these seats? Are they there by merit? Also is politics not about representation rather than merit?

“It is very seldom that parties have been rejected [for not meeting quota standards] and that is interesting. When they are forced, they find the women.”

Another system Dahlerup suggested, while radical, may be more effective in a first-past-the-post system. It would involve a dual-member system wherein each riding would elect one man and one woman to the legislature in each district.

Former Canadian prime minister Kim Campbell has proposed a similar system in several speeches and made headlines last year with the concept.

Campbell also noted that it would achieve gender equality while eliminating the stigma of quotas.

Does the electorate share some of the blame?

Despite what some term as a patronizing treatment in the public sphere it appears that gender is not a chief concern for voters.

Sylvia Bashelvkin
Sylvia Bashevkin
MacPhail's Successors

Sylvia Bashevkin, a political scientist from the University of Toronto, looked at the negative effects of underrepresentation for women in her 2009 book Women, Power, Politics: The Hidden Story of Canada's Unfinished Democracy and found a persistent marginalization of women's contributions to politics in the media and public sphere.

“There's a certain stream of gender stereotyping that still colours our discussions of public leadership that often tends to trivialize the contributions of women by paying particular attention to things like their appearance, speaking style or their personal lives rather than positions on policy.”

According to a recent poll, party loyalty factors far outweigh individual factors such as gender. In fact, respondents said women often tend to represent leadership qualities the voting public admires. The online Abacus survey was conducted in December 2014 and included a sample size of 1,438 Canadians.

“The argument is that [women] tend to be more community focused… and that they tend on average to be more honest and trustworthy than male politicians,” said Bashevkin.

The core of the issue comes back to the political parties and their nominations processes, says Melanee Thomas, a political scientist from the University of Calgary.

“We can find no evidence that voters discriminate against women candidates. We did find considerable evidence that party [nomination committees] were more likely to discriminate against women candidates,” said Thomas.

Thomas's 2013 research with Marc André Bodet of Laval University looked at district competitiveness. They found that women were more likely to be chosen as nominees in areas considered strongholds for other parties.

Where women are involved in the party nomination process, Thomas also said, more women are recruited to run for that nomination. Former MP and deputy prime minister Sheila Copps agrees.

“People try to replicate themselves and their social circle is usually very like-minded. I probably recruited more women in my time because it's human nature,” said Copps.

Copps played a role in pitching the concept of a gender target of 25 per cent to former prime minister Jean Chrétien in 1993.

The target concept relies on the ability of the party leader to appoint women nominees required to meet the target.

Former prime minister Paul Martin opted to not have a target for women in the federal Liberal Party for 2004 while Stéphane Dion increased the target to 30 per cent in 2008.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is running with an open nomination policy for the upcoming election, although this has caused some recent controversies. Ultimately, women comprised 31 per cent of the Liberal candidates.

The NDP has internal mechanisms to attempt to foster diversity. They say they have "parity policies," that aim for gender diversity in the party structure, leadership and delegates." It also insists that ridings must provide documentation of efforts to search for a woman or minority candidate before selecting a white male. When the final candidate list was released, the NDP touted a record proportion of 43 per cent women candidates.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Conservative Party holds that the matter should be left up to the local riding associations to determine. After running only 38 women candidates in 2006 the party's figure spiked quickly in 2008 to 63 candidates. In 2015, 66 women, representing 20 per cent of the Conservatives roster of candidates, are in the running.

Percentage of female candidates by party in the 2015 federal election

CON (66 women, 338 candidates) 19.5% LIB (104 women, 338 candidates) 30.7% NDP (146 women, 338 candidates) 43.2% GRN (134 women, 336 candidates) 39.8% BQ (22 women, 78 candidates) 28.2%

'Waiting to be asked'

Some observers suggest the gap persists because there is a different mindset when it comes to running for office. Men are eager to run whereas women tend to be surprised when asked to enter the race.

Kellie Leitch
Kellie Leitch
Earning Your Place at the Table

Indeed, an Abacus Data survey demonstrated an observable political ambition gap between women and men. Among the 1,850 Canadian respondents in the online poll, men (28 per cent) said they were more inclined to run for office as compared with women (15 per cent). The online poll was conducted over six days in 2014.

“Young men are full of steam and full of confidence … I notice often that women are waiting for someone to ask them,” said High Park-Parkdale MP Peggy Nash.

Nash serves on the board of directors for Equal Voice, a nonpartisan group that seeks to increase women's involvement in politics in Canada. She admits she waited to be asked to enter politics as well.

Leitch was considered a star candidate for the Simcoe-Grey riding with an estimable medical background as a pediatric orthopedic surgeon. Still, it took more than one "ask" from the late former finance minister Jim Flaherty to convince her to run.

“I'm a surgeon. I'm a parliamentarian. I have not spent my life thinking about gender balance. I have spent it thinking of things I would be excited to do in public service to this country,” said Leitch. “I encourage as many [women] as possible, step up and put your name on a ballot because we need you in Parliament.”

Leitch says she is a big believer in the necessity for women to "champion" each other and encourages successful women in all fields to find young women and help them on their way.

Peggy Nash
Peggy Nash
Changing the House

Changing the culture

The absence of measurable prejudice from the electorate does not seem to be reflected in the male-dominated political culture of the House itself.

When sexual harassment allegations rocked the House last fall, Liberal whip Judy Foote revealed to CBC News last November that there was no pre-existing mechanism to deal with the issue.

Former parliamentarians including Belinda Stronach have criticized a "lack of civility" in the male-dominated House as a reason women stay away from politics.

Nash used the word "bruising" in an interview to describe the tone of debate in the House.

She thinks that "overt" sexism is usually seen as inappropriate, but recalls hearing then deputy leader of the Conservative Party Peter MacKay telling former NDP leader Alexa McDonough to “stick to your knitting” in 2006.

Dahlerup believes there is strength in numbers when dealing with "old boys networks." She took the concept of critical mass, meaning the amount required for self-sustainment, and applied it to women within political cultures. The figure is generally held to be about 30 per cent.

“The critical mass is important in that you remove the tokenizing element of [representation in the House],” said Thomas.

Thomas cautions that politicians often misapply the 30 per cent figure.

The critical mass will not necessarily ensure a shift in policy focus to women's issues for example. That would require groups of like-minded women to be elected, which of course cannot be guaranteed across the political spectrum.

Dahlerup agrees that the figure is often misused. It may not matter in terms of policy but it does aid in changing the culture, she says.

“In terms of the daily life of politics, there I think the number counts. It makes a difference if you're only one or two women, for example with the question of sexual harassment.”

Hedy Fry, the Liberal MP for Vancouver Centre and a former minister for the status of women, believes in other ways of achieving diversity by further opening up the House to younger individuals, of both genders, with work-life balance measures.

According to Fry, MPs could spend more time in their ridings if Parliament sat for concentrated bursts to do key matters such as voting, while much of the committee work and even some voting could be done online and through video conferencing.

Other measures include additions of family care facilities to the building itself.

“The solution is simple, a family-friendly legislature. It helps men too. I don't know why people have not adopted it everywhere. You keep business hours for parliamentary business,” said Thomas.

Leitch believes this is already occurring.

“Now with more flights, more opportunities for travel and because of the rules of the House of Commons, more women are putting their names on the ballot.”

While the number picture remains bleak, if there are grounds for optimism, it is in a younger more diverse crop of parliamentarians and, as Nash pointed out, the increasing number of senior female stakeholders in the political process to serve as examples.

The average age of the House is still above 53, among MPs whose age is listed; more than 50 per cent of MPs under 40 years of age are women. With the exception of Calgary-Centre MP Michelle Rempel, they are also exclusively NDP.

Young women seek 'trickle up' effect

There are also grassroots initiatives to get women into the political arena right from university.

Kyla Ronellenfitsch and Emily Nickel are the national youth co-chairs Equal Voice. They have both interned on Parliament Hill and had positive experiences but they acknowledge the presence of the "old boys club" and lament the incivility of the tone of debate in the House.

“There should be more respect for that House. There should be more respect for colleagues who are working so hard to make those decisions. It deterred me in my mindset even,” said Nickel.

The two hope to continue to grow an on-campus initiative called She Will Run, a workshop designed to prepare women to throw their hat in the political ring by familiarizing them with the process.

It remains to be seen if such initiatives will "trickle-up" to Ottawa where there is work to be done.

Laurin Liu was a part of the NDP's 2011 surge in Quebec and entered the House at 20 years of age straight from McGill University. She is running for re-election in Rivière-des-Mille-Île.

“I think that in 2011 we saw an unprecedented wave of younger people being elected to the House of Commons,” said Liu.

Liu also states that while this is a positive step, she is still seated on committees with 11 or 12 members on which she is the only woman MP.

“I think it's important to remember that gender parity doesn't happen by chance and it doesn't happen automatically.”

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