As Canadians we hold the values of equal opportunity, fairness, and democracy extremely close to our hearts. Yet when we look at our elected legislatures, we see that women remain vastly underrepresented all across the country. It might shock some people to know that while women make up a majority of the Canadian population (52%), they comprise only 22% of all elected MPs in the House of Commons. This figure hasn’t budged all that much over the past few decades – in 1993, the percentage of female MPs stood at 18%. What does this mean in the broader picture? Canada ranks 48th in the world in terms of the number of female parliamentarians – below most countries in Europe, but nonetheless still better than the United States (which shares the dubious prize of being tied for 67th place with Turkmenistan).
Aside from basic issues of equity and fairness, does this gender gap matter? The short answer is yes. Women bring different perspectives to the decision-making table, as well as different policy priorities based on their own experiences. Studies also show that women tend to “do politics” differently, in terms of their greater likelihood to seek consensus, work collaboratively with others, and to value negotiation, respect and dialogue in their dealings with opposing members.
A number of proposals aimed at addressing the underrepresentation of women in our political system have been advanced, including legislated quotas, a revamped electoral system (from first-past the post to some form of proportional representation), and targeted subsidies aimed at leveling the financial playing field for female candidates. While these measures may help encourage more women to run for office, on a deeper, more troubling level is what political scientist Sylvia Bashevkin calls the “women plus power equals discomfort” equation – the sense that politics in Canada is still a man’s game. That a double standard exists in terms of how female politicians are treated, especially by the media, has been amply validated by numerous empirical studies and research findings. At the same time, many women are turned off from the idea of running by the crass, attack-style kind of politics which has unfortunately come to dominate the political scene in Canada. We thus find ourselves in a catch-22: if we want to change how we engage in politics, we need a more representative and inclusive political system. But in order to get to that point, we need to change how we do politics in this country.
Equal Voice, a non-partisan national lobby group focused on increasing the number of women elected to political office in Canada, reports that a record number of women (407) are running as candidates in the current federal election. This represents 31% of all candidates; a new Canadian high (in the 2008 election, just under 28% of candidates were women). Maybe, just maybe, on May 2 we can begin to crack through the electoral glass ceiling that still shuts out more than half of the Canadian population. And maybe in the process we can also make public office an honourable calling once again in our country.
Kelly Saunders, Brandon University