2019 saw a record number of women elected — but gender equity in the Commons is still far off

In 2019, Canadians sent more women to the House of Commons than ever before. But the 98 women elected as MPs occupy just 29 per cent of the seats in the chamber — meaning the House of Commons still doesn't reflect the electorate it was chosen to serve.

Could better gender balance lead to better decision-making?

Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland, centre, arrives for the swearing in of the new cabinet at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. While Freeland is now one of the most powerful figures in the federal government, the House of Commons is still a long way from gender balance. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

In 2019, Canadians sent more women to the House of Commons than ever before. 

But the 98 women elected as MPs occupy just 29 per cent of the seats in the chamber — meaning the House of Commons still doesn't reflect the electorate it was chosen to serve.

Eleanor Fast, executive director of Equal Voice, said she had hoped to see the number of women elected this fall reach 30 per cent of the total. That mark has often been cited as a turning point for women's participation in federal politics — a critical mass that could actually change how the Commons operates.

"We thought the 30 per cent was a realistic and fairly modest target," Fast said. "And we didn't hit it."

Karen McCrimmon, re-elected this fall in the Ottawa suburban riding of Kanata-Carleton, is now beginning her second term as a Liberal member of Parliament. She said a more diverse Parliament would do a better job of representing Canadians — and make better-informed choices.

"We need to have politics where everybody feels like they can participate," she said. "It's been my experience that the more diversity you have around a table, the better your decisions are going to be, because your decisions are going to be better informed.

"And that's not just gender diversity. That's also ethnicity, language, life experience."

Getting things done

McCrimmon is a former lieutenant-colonel and commanding officer of a transport squadron in the Canadian Forces. She said her experience in the military taught her that bringing in more women can change the way a workplace functions.

Karen McCrimmon takes part in the Liberal Party of Canada leadership debate in Winnipeg, Saturday, February 2, 2013. (John Woods/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

"I think that women are more used to working collaboratively, to getting things done in informal structures," she said. "Whereas men are used to very formal, hierarchical structures. Women weren't invited into those structures until relatively recently."

That's not the only difference she's observed. McCrimmon said that she found fundraising — the simple act of asking people for money — one of the hardest tasks to get used to when she ran for the Liberal leadership in 2013. She said she's spoken to other women candidates who have had the same experience.

"I still hate to ask for money," she said. "We don't, I think, always feel our sense of worth, what we're actually going to exchange for that money."

When she asked some of the men running in 2013 which aspects of the campaign they struggled with, she said, none of them mentioned money — but some of them cited "working with volunteers."

"Again, men are used to working in these hierarchical, siloed structures. Women achieve things outside of those structures," she said. "We have to be able to work together, because that was the only way we could get things done."

The power of incumbency

When asked why the number of women in the Commons remains stubbornly low, Fast pointed to something she called the "incumbency effect."

"Before the election, 74 per cent of all parliamentarians were men, and many of them stood again," she said. "If you have a successful member of Parliament who wishes to run again, it makes absolute sense for you to nominate [them]." 

That might make it easier for a party to hold on to a seat. It also makes it harder for newcomers — women included — to break through.

Fast does see cause for optimism, however, in the number of women who have risen to "the central government roles."

She pointed to Chrystia Freeland's appointment as deputy prime minister. She's just the third woman in Canadian history to hold that role, after Liberal cabinet ministers Sheila Copps and Anne McLellan.

"There's also other women who are in portfolios that have big budgets and financial oversights," Fast said. "Things like infrastructure, health, labour and some of the economic development portfolios."

Signs of progress

In the 2019 election, all four major parties ran more female candidates than they had previously, according to Equal Voice. The NDP put forward the most: 49 per cent of its candidates were women.

Of the 24 NDP members of Parliament elected, nine are women.

"We have some very strong, interesting women who are going to really take up a lot of space in this Parliament," said Anne McGrath, the NDP's national director.

NDP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, middle, joins fellow newly elected NDP members as they take part in a group swearing in ceremony in Ottawa on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

McGrath specifically mentioned Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, the MP for Nunavut, as someone to watch, as well as Winnipeg Centre's Leah Gazan and Victoria's Laurel Collins.

She said that the party has gender equity "written into pretty much every aspect of the organization" and sees the pursuit of equality as a priority.

If it forms a federal government, McGrath said, the NDP also would have a gender-balanced cabinet.

Are gender-balanced cabinets here to stay?

Fast said she thinks future governments will maintain this new standard.

"Absolutely, we were expecting that whatever party that was the government would have a gender-balanced cabinet," she said. "I think that precedent was set in 2015, and our expectation is that will be the norm moving forward." 

Not everyone agrees. Christopher Cochrane, a political scientist at the University of Toronto who studies Canadian politics, said the precedent set by the Trudeau Liberals after the 2015 election may not be all that durable.

"I find it hard to believe that the Conservatives would uphold that principle, just as a matter of policy," he said. 

"Certainly if they had 50 per cent of their MPs who were women, I would expect cabinet to then be 50 per cent women, but I don't think that's a policy that the Conservatives would implement as a matter of course." 

The Conservatives' director of communications could not be reached for comment.

Cochrane is part of the University of Toronto's Linked Parliamentary Data Project, which has digitized the Hansard — the record of debates and statements in the House of Commons — in order to make it more accessible and available for analysis.

Who does most of the talking in the Commons?

He said that an analysis of data gathered from recent parliamentary speeches revealed a surprising result.

"One might expect, given that cabinet was 50 per cent female for the first time ever, that you would see a corresponding increase in the amount of time when women in the Liberal Party were speaking," he said. "That actually turned out not to be the case."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks in the House of Commons Dec. 5, 2019. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Partly, Cochrane said, that pattern is due to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself, who spoke more in the Commons over the past four years and answered more questions in question period than many past prime ministers have done.

"So this is something we'd expected to see — an actual increase in the number of speeches given by women in Parliament," he said. "But we actually don't see that in the data."

Gender balance and policy

Cochrane also said it's hard to nail down the effect gender balance in cabinet has on policy. 

"It's hard to imagine that having a cabinet comprised of 50 per cent women wouldn't have at least some impact on cabinet decision making," he said, adding there's no evidence yet to describe that effect, if it exists.

Reading cabinet deliberations and seeing who pushes certain policies might tell us something, he said, but those records are not currently accessible.

And when it comes to deciding what gets done in cabinet government, Cochrane said, gender may matter less than old-fashioned partisanship.

"Part of the challenge here is that in Canadian politics, partisanship is just such an overwhelmingly dominant influence," he said. "It's hard for me to imagine that the difference between men and women as they exist in policy would be significant enough to shine through."

Role models

But improving the gender balance in the Commons and cabinet has another, more subtle effect: it sends a message to ambitious women and girls everywhere about what's possible.

Part of the trouble with being a trailblazer is having to do it alone. McCrimmon said that, throughout her career, she had to push forward without the example of other women who'd done what she was trying to — and work around bosses who weren't always supportive.

"I didn't have female role models, and it's really important," she said.

"Earlier in my career when I was a squadron commander, I had a senior general come up to me and say, 'Well you don't look like a leader.' What does a leader look like? What does a politician look like?

"The idea of having role models is really critical, so people can see themselves in politics. And that's why we need more women in politics." 

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