Politics·Analysis

MPs study barriers keeping women from politics, but is another study the solution?

An MP committee is studying barriers keeping women from running for politics, but how do its members plan to move beyond study and into results?

Committee vice-chair and witnesses talk to Power & Politics about turning studies into action

Jane Hilderman, Sheila Malcolmson and Michaela Glasgo talk to Vassy Kapelos about how to get more women to pursue politics. 11:40

Me too. Time's up. Lean in. Gender-based analysis.

In 2018, there are buzzwords and hashtags aplenty when it comes to expressing a desire for gender equality across politics, workplaces and even Hollywood.

But how do you move the needle beyond trendy catchphrases and into real results?

That's what a committee of Canada's parliamentarians are studying, but members admit there is the chance the study's results will only end up shelved under the "Thanks, Captain Obvious" file. 

"We hope this isn't just an airing of problems," said Sheila Malcolmson, the NDP's critic for women's equality and a vice-chair on the standing committee for the Status of Women. Malcolmson joined two of the witnesses who have testified before the committee in a wide-ranging conversation with CBC's Power & Politics host Vassy Kapelos. 

'Political parties can be the biggest champions' of gender equality, says Helen Clark on Power & Politics. 7:04

"It is late in this term to make changes in time for the next election, but if we can find tweaks, then we'll certainly hope that the government implements them."

Some of the "tweaks" the committee is considering include:

  • Virtual participation and voting in parliamentary committee meetings to help female MPs who are expecting or are new parents. 
  • Instituting a 60-day parental leave instead of the current 21-day sick leave available. 
  • Incentivizing political parties to come up with candidate slates that are closer to a 50-50 gender divide. 

There are the daunting cultural and socioeconomic barriers that are harder — if not impossible — to legislate. And that is where the committee is coming up against its toughest challenge. 

The barriers are real, but the evidence says if you get women on the ballot, voters will choose them- Sheila  Malcolmson

"A woman, on average, has to be asked 11 times to run, because she's balancing childcare and eldercare and income," Malcolmson pointed out on the panel. 

Jane Hilderman conducted exit interviews with departing MPs, 23 of whom were women, as part of her work as executive director of the Samara Centre for Democracy.

"The women often had a different experience than their male counterparts," she said. "They felt they had to work twice as hard to be recognized, work twice as hard to be heard."

Parties getting in the way

What about the kind of deeply entrenched, everyday sexism that can keep a woman from entering politics? 

"A big question this committee in their study is tackling is: Should this be left to the parties? Or is there a role for government to intervene and try to standardize the process?" said Hilderman, who testified before the committee on June 12.

Michaela Glasgo is new to politics, running in her first provincial nomination race for Alberta's United Conservative Party in the riding of Brooks–Medicine Hat.

She said she thinks both government and political parties should get out of the way of women. 

"I think actually the biggest barrier women face in politics is the political parties themselves, and the proclivity of the general public to put women into lock-and-step political categories," she said. 

Glasgo, 25, concedes she had to be asked "a few times" to run for office, but balks at a quota system — an idea that has been floated around the committee during its five meetings to date. 

"If my winning is based on the party putting another hurdle in place, which is what I think a quota is, that's not a win for me, and I don't think that's a win for anybody else," she said. 

"What I think we should be doing is finding qualified people, period. Whether that's women, whether that's men, whatever that looks like."

Right now, women hold 27 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons, putting Canada at a dismal 61st place out of 193 countries in terms of equal gender representation. (Countries like Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Nicaragua boast better numbers.)

Political parties can be the biggest champions of women's participation in politics, or they can be a little difficult about it. So converting the parties is key.- Helen Clark, former New Zealand prime minister

Proponents of the quota system, including Malcolmson, argue it's a way to make sure the country's population is better represented in Parliament. She spoke in favour of a 2016 NDP motion — since defeated at second reading — that would have reduced the reimbursement each party receives for election expenses if there's a more than 10 per cent difference in the number of male and female candidates.

"The barriers are real, but the evidence says if you get women on the ballot, voters will choose them," she said. 

Glasgo interprets quotas differently.

"We need to make sure we're encouraging women, but that we're also not reducing them to their gender," she said. "I certainly wouldn't be happy if the party was protecting me in any way, or suggesting that it needed to be because I was a woman. That's insulting."

Former New Zealand PM weighs in

A person who's uniquely placed to reflect on barriers facing women in politics is former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark, who became the country's first elected female leader in 1999, serving for three terms. 

For Clark, quotas are something to be employed as a last resort.

"My view is if nothing else is working to get the breakthrough, you should go to quotas," she told Power & Politics in a separate interview.

When it comes to demolishing those barriers, Clark has a few suggestions for the Canadians.

"One of the best reforms that ever happened in the New Zealand Parliament was not sitting on Fridays. That was definitely conducive to women who had family responsibilities but wanted a political career," she said. 

Ultimately for Clark, it comes down to political will — and that has to come from the parties.

"It's really the political parties that have to make a lot of the running on this," she said. "Political parties can be the biggest champions of women's participation in politics, or they can be a little difficult about it. So converting the parties is key."

That leaves the committee in a bit of a holding pattern for now, with more questions than answers and a less-than-clearly defined goal beyond studying "barriers facing women in politics."

With Parliament having risen for the summer, the members likely won't meet again until the fall, said committee clerk Kenza Gamassi. The motion for the creation of the study limits the committee to just six to eight meetings; five have already taken place. 

It remains to be seen whether success in destroying those barriers — structural, institutional and societal — can be accomplished by the committee. 

But just as Rome wasn't built in a day, it wasn't demolished in one either. 

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