New Brunswick

Women in politics: Why is it an issue?

Canada prides itself as being a democracy. We have universal suffrage. We have free and fair elections and we have majority rule with a constitution that protects minority rights.

Ninth in a series of expert analysis articles on major issues in the 2010 N.B. election

Joanna Everitt is a political science professor at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John.

She is also the dean of the university's Faculty of Arts.

Everitt specializes in Canadian politics, gender and politics as well as political behavior.

Everitt's main research efforts include gender differences in public opinion and media coverage of male and female party leaders and its impact on leadership evaluations.

She co-wrote an article "Electoral Reform and Issues of Representation" with Sonia Pitre for the Commission on Legislative Democracy in 2007.

Canada prides itself as being a democracy. We have universal suffrage. We have free and fair elections and we have majority rule with a constitution that protects minority rights. 

However, one of the hallmarks of a democracy is that it is representative of the diversity and of the interests of its citizens. In this case Canada, and New Brunswick in particular, fails the democratic test.

While there are many groups and identities within the Canadian political system that are clearly under-represented, the most obvious example is the case of women. 

Women comprise more than 50 per cent of the Canadian population, yet despite substantial social and economic change in recent decades they remain seriously under-represented in our political institutions.

Nationally, women make up 22.1 per cent of federal Members of Parliament in Canada’s House of Commons, putting us at 51st in the world in terms of women’s legislative representation, behind countries such as Pakistan, Mexico, most countries in Europe and several in Africa. (Six months ago we stood at 49th in the world, but other countries have now surpassed us.)

This democratic deficit has been even greater at our provincial level as before the 2010 provincial election, only six women held seats in the New Brunswick Legislative Assembly. There had been seven, but Rose-May Poirier was appointed to the Senate last winter and had to resign her seat in Rogersville-Kouchibouguac.

As a result, women’s representation in New Brunswick was just under 11 per cent at the time the election was called, placing our province far behind other provinces and territories in terms of the seats held by women.

Why are there so few women in politics?

There are several reasons for why these numbers are so low.

In some cases it is because women still shoulder a greater share of the family responsibilities and therefore wait until their children are raised before considering politics.

In other cases it is because women are often found in occupations that are more difficult to step away from for the four to six weeks of an election, or have fewer financial resources or networks with the financial resources to mount an election campaign.

There is also the adversarial, "us" versus "them" nature of politics, the winner-take-all attitude and the win at all costs approach that leaves many women (and many men) dissatisfied with the political process and unwilling to participate in it.

Finally, there is our single member plurality electoral system which leaves a high degree of autonomy over who gets nominated to run for a political party to the local riding associations. 

Nomination process problems

It is the nomination process that is the biggest barrier to getting more women elected. In a large part this is due to the challenge of incumbency. The way to get elected is to run for a party that has a good chance of winning in the riding that one is running in.

In any given election only a few sitting members decide to retire from politics which means that the most "winnable" seats for any given party are already taken. 

And, given the statistics for New Brunswick, they are probably taken by a man.  In this current election only seven of the 55 ridings do not have an incumbent running in them.

Significant increases in the number of women elected frequently occur when there are major shifts in party support and the opposition gets swept in to office. 

It is for this reason that major upsets like the Frank McKenna sweep in 1987, or even smaller scale government change such as Bernard Lord’s win in 1999, can open up opportunities for women.

It remains to be seen whether this will be one of those elections.

Linked to the issue of incumbency is the fact that if a winnable seat does become vacant its nomination process is frequently more hotly contested. In winnable ridings, the backroom boys (they are seldom girls) often decide in advance who they want as the candidate.

Their decisions are based on their networks (more likely to be comprised of men than women), and on who they think is most likely to win.

Given that winnable candidates in the past have most often been men it is no wonder that they often turn to other men to take up their party’s standard. Unless a party makes a conscious effort to broaden their pool of potential candidates to include women they will continue to put forward primarily men.

In only one of the seven "open seat" ridings in the 2010 election was a woman chosen to replace a retiring incumbent.

Women have a lot harder time breaking through the barriers thrown up by the party selectorate in "winnable" ridings than they do in ridings in which their party has little chance of winning. 

In these "lost cause" ridings the party back rooms are more than happy to have women run as their standard bearers. This is one of the reasons why parties who have little chance of getting elected can often claim more female candidates.

Opportunities for women

For the past year the New Brunswick chapter of Equal Voice, an organization dedicated to electing more women to politics, has been trying to do more to increase the representation of women in our legislative assembly. 

This past spring it hosted a training session to prepare women to seek the nomination and run in the 2010 election. It also issued a well-publicized challenge to provincial party leaders asking them to commit to do more to recruit female candidates.

All parties responded, and indeed, if we simply look at the numbers of women who have been nominated as candidates by their party, it would appear that New Brunswick has the potential to have a record number of women elected after Sept. 27.

As of Sept. 2, it looks like 61 women have been nominated to run for their parties. And there may possibly be even more as the Green party has not yet finished identifying all of their candidates. This is almost twice the number in 2006.

At the moment, women are likely to represent at least 29.5 per cent of the candidates — up almost nine percentage points from the last election.

However, these numbers are deceptive because it is not just increasing the numbers of women being nominated that will increase the representation of women. It is women being nominated in winnable ridings that will make a real difference.

And unfortunately this has not happened. 

Incumbency and the tendency for both the Liberals and Progressive Conservative parties to nominate men in "winnable" ridings may mean that unless there are some major upsets in this election, we may actually find ourselves with fewer women elected after Sept. 27 than before the election.  

Only six women are running in ridings where their party won in the last election.

Increasing the representation of women in N.B. politics

Experience shows that the quickest and most effective way to increase the representation of women in politics is to change the electoral system. 

This would represent significant institutional change and the experience of the province's Commission on Legislative Democracy, which recommended such a strategy, suggests that this type of reform is not likely to happen soon. 

However, that commission also recommended other changes that would be easy to implement under our current single member plurality electoral system.

The most obvious would be to provide rewards to parties who nominate and are successful in electing their female candidates. 

We already provide significant public support to our political parties through the refunding of campaign expenses. Providing additional support to parties who get more of their female candidates elected would give them greater incentive to seek out and nominate women in their winnable ridings.

It is only when parties begin to do this that we will see one of our greatest democratic deficits addressed.

Table 1: Percentage of Women Members in Legislative Assemblies
Province/Territory Party Elected  # of women elected % of women elected
Manitoba  NDP 18  31.6
B.C.  Liberal  25  29.4 
Quebec Liberal 36 28.8
Ontario Liberal 29 27
P.E.I. Liberal 7 26 
N.S. NDP 12 23
Sask. Sask. Party 13 22.4 
Canada Conservative  68 21.1
N.L. PC 10 21 
Alberta PC 17 20.5
N.W.T. Independents 3 15.8
Yukon Yukon 2 11.1
N.B. Liberal 6 10.9
Nunavut Independents 2 10.5
 Total   248  23.4