Nfld. & Labrador

Women in N.L. politics: we've slipped so far, so fast

Not long ago, Newfoundland and Labrador was leading the country in terms of gender balance in the provincial legislature, with females at the helm of all three political parties. The situation has changed dramatically, however, and we've now fallen behind most other provinces.
Kathy Dunderdale, pictured here during her resignation announcement in January 2014, was the first female to serve as premier of Newfoundland and Labrador. (CBC)

This past weekend, newly elected Alberta Premier Rachel Notley appointed a perfectly gender-balanced cabinet: six men and six women.

It's one of the first times it's happened in the country and as other provinces like Alberta make progress, we're falling behind here in Newfoundland and Labrador .

Less than five years ago, the story was much different. Kathy Dunderdale was the province's first female premier, and she was facing off in the House of Assembly against two other female party leaders.

We were held up as a leader. People were asking what we were doing right. But with the numbers today, we're left wondering how we slipped back so far, so fast.

Today, not a single woman sits around the cabinet table in this province.  The lone appointee, Susan Sullivan, is off on leave, leaving the job of representing the status of woman to Premier Paul Davis.

Even with Sullivan, this is the the first cabinet in 20 years to have just one woman. The last time that happened it was when Clyde Wells was premier.

Paul Davis not to blame for imbalance

The problem isn't Paul Davis. He's been dealt a testosterone-heavy hand. There are only two women in his caucus. He tried to bring in Judy Manning from outside to provided a better gender balance, and that went over horribly (for reasons completely unrelated to her gender).

The problem is that there aren't a lot of women in provincial politics to begin with. Just 13 per cent of of our MHAs are women.

Why is that a problem?

It goes beyond having just a group of men making decisions about issues that affect women.

Is a cabinet of all men really the best group to put together a strategy to address violence against women? Or tackle the issue of affordable childcare?

Any good cabinet needs diversity; the people making decisions for the province should reflect the province.

More than half this province's population is female, but not a single woman is part of the decision-making at the top.

It would be the same problem if all the cabinet ministers were lawyers, or all represented the Northeast Avalon, or were all over the age of 60.

N.L.'s numbers shockingly low

Sheilagh O'Leary ran for the NDP, and is now head of the non-partisan group Equal Voice. 

It works to get women involved in politics at all levels. She says there are lots of benefits to having more women involved in decision making.

"We have different perspectives to bring to the table," says O'Leary. "It is crucial that we have a higher representation of women in all levels of government."

When you add up how many women have served in the House, it's shockingly low.

Since Lady Helena Squires joined her husband Sir Richard Squires in the House of Assembly in 1930, only 29 women have ever served as MHAs. 

It would take almost every single one of them serving in the house today just give us a 50 per cent gender balance.

The solution isn't forcing an arbitrary number like 50 per cent. It's about convincing more qualified women to get into politics. But it also needs to be a priority for the parties.

Long hours, parenting demands often cited 

More women running is something Liberal Leader Dwight Ball says he's committed to, but the party's current list of nominated candidates still contains very few women.

Just five women are set to represent the party out of the 27 candidates selected (it could all change with new districts next month set to force new nomination battles). That's less than one in five. It's an improvement over the representation we have now, but still a long way to go to be considered a leader in the country.

Politics is seen as a dirty business. Everybody talks about how you have to have a really thick skin to be involved in politics.- Sheilagh O'Leary

So what's holding women back? O'Leary says women are still often the primary caregiver. The long hours and child care issues do dissuade some from running, but that's only a small part of the problem.

"Politics is seen as a dirty business. A lot of people do not have the faith in the politicians and the leaders we have elected over the last while," says O'Leary. "'Everybody talks about how you have to have a really thick skin to be involved in politics."

O'Leary says her group is trying to show women the other side of politics, convincing them there are great rewards that come with getting involved in public life.

If we, as a province, want to show the country we're leaders on gender equity, we'll have a lot of work to do before this fall's election.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Rachel Notley's cabinet was the first in the country to have equal men and women. In fact, Jean Charest did it first - in Quebec in 2007.
    May 28, 2015 5:21 AM NT

About the Author

Peter Cowan

CBC News

Peter Cowan is a St. John's-based reporter with CBC News.

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