Canadian politics and the gender imbalance

TORONTO (CUP) — One of the key issues that emerged during the federal election is the underrepresentation of women candidates and the small number of female MPs in the House of Commons. Surely, social critics say, there must be coherent reasons for the mere 21 per cent women members of Parliament speaking for the 52 per cent female Canadian population. The answer may at least partially be found in political parties’ internal policies which can influence the number of female candidates a party runs.

“The internal structures of political parties may make it harder for women to run and to seek nomination” said Vicky Smallman, Vice Chair of the National Capital Region chapter of Equal Voice. The organization is made up of multipartisan members advocating for increased election of women politicians.

“Each party has its own culture and nomination process and women may or may not want to navigate those. Or sometimes it may be easier for men to play the game within political parties,” she said.

Names of potential male candidates more easily jump to mind given the common image that politicians are men and the fact that the political sphere involves more men than women.

At the various political levels, women’s lack of voice presents them with fewer opportunities to get involved in national politics. Riding association executives may not think of prominent women in the community when it comes to seeking members to go to party conventions. Thus, from party conventions, there are fewer women proceeding to provincial or national-level party involvement in committees. Even fewer women are nominated to run a party campaign as a potential riding candidate.

Instead of recognizing women’s accomplishments in the community, the party culture may dictate a more favourable view upon those who have been paying their dues toiling in the riding association, for example.

“There are different ways that a party can govern itself that either promote or discourage the representation of women,” Smallman said.

“The New Democratic Party definitely has the best record so far in nominating women,” she said.

In the current election, 35 per cent of the NDP’s candidates were women. This was more than the 31 per cent for the Bloc Quebecois; the 26 per cent of the Liberals; or the 11 per cent of the Progressive Conservatives.

The NDP has an affirmative action policy according to Diane O’Reggio, Provincial Secretary of the NDP in Ontario.

“Prior to ridings being able to nominate candidates at the local level, they must go through a search process which includes approaching affirmative action candidates, including women,” she said.

The goal of the search process is to build a party that is diverse in terms of representing minority groups such as youth, gays and lesbians, the disabled, Francophones, visible minorities, and women.

In addition, the party has a gender parity policy in which an equal number of men and women must be represented at party meetings or conventions to ensure a gender balance in the participation of members at all levels of the party.

Lynn Lau, the Green Party candidate for Edmonton-Sherwood Park states that her party’s policies are influential in encouraging women to be involved in politics. The party lacks formal initiatives, however, to involve women candidates.

“Attracting any quality candidates for our party in each riding is a challenge, so with the issue of attracting women and minorities as candidates – we’re not there yet” Lau said.

The Liberal party had a 45 per cent success rate in the number of women candidates running being elected during the last election, second only to that of the Bloc Quebecois with 78 per cent. The Liberal party noted, in a letter responding to Equal Voice, that the implementation of a Women’s Working Group, the National Liberal Women’s Commission, the National Liberal Women’s Caucus, and the National Mentorship Program are all initiatives to encourage women’s participation in the political sphere.

Rona Ambrose, incumbent Conservative MP for Edmonton-Spruce Grove, said her party does not use quota nominations or other structures to encourage the participation of women candidates.

“We believe that nominations have to be open and democratic” she said.

Unlike other parties who appoint women and other minorities as “star candidates”, Ambrose said the Conservative party promotes inclusive participation of candidates by simply allowing candidates without name recognition or other profiles, to run on what she calls an “equal playing field.”

Although the Conservative party trails all parties in the number of women candidates running in this election, with 32 candidates, Ambrose said their policy resulted in the positive outcome of being the youngest and most ethnically diverse party in the House of Commons.

Women’s involvement in federal politics continues to grow, but some feel it is at a yawning pace. The 2004 election saw 391 women candidates running: a total of 23 per cent of all candidates. This was an increase over the 20 per cent who ran in 2000.

“Equal Voice is really pushing the parties hard to make special efforts to recruit female candidates,” Smallman said. “Women have to get involved in the political parties and work from the inside to ensure that women get involved in leadership positions”.

Electoral reform may encourage the election of women candidates. Implementing proportional representation, a policy of electing MP’s based on the proportions of total party votes received, may replicate positive results seen in other countries, Smallman said.

In addition, financing limits on federal campaigns may be an effective way to open the candidacy process to women.

Smallman acknowledges that there are broader societal issues at play, such as family and child-rearing obligations that often fall on women’s shoulders.

“There’s still a pretty strong gender bias in our country. We think our work is done, but it’s not,” Smallman said.

She added that, in her opinion, women are faced with a relatively higher degree of privacy infringement which is a further deterrent to enter a political career. Women politicians are judged harshly compared to male politicians, Smallman said, portrayed in a more personal way that includes, for example, commentary on their appearance.

Smallman believes that Parliament would become vastly different with increased involvement of women. “The debate would be more civilized,” she mused.

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