The ongoing political saga unfolding in British Columbia (BC) has brought no shortage of twists and turns. From the May 9th, 2017 election that left the BC Liberals one seat short of a majority in the provincial legislature, to the later emergence of a governing agreement between the NDP and the BC Greens—the first government in Canada to be contingent on support from the Green Party, not to mention the province’s first minority government in 65 years, BC’s provincial politics have undergone startling and intriguing changes in recent months.

As a result, journalists, scholars, and voters have pondered the potential outcomes—and feasibility—of this newly founded NDP-Green alliance, the implications of the BC government’s ambitious environmental agenda for fossil fuel development, and the difficulty of finding an MLA willing to preside as Speaker over a sharply divided legislature, among other hotly debated topics. Yet, one particular turning point in the new BC government’s ascension to power seems to have largely flown under the radar. On Tuesday, July 18th, BC’s newly minted NDP Premier John Horgan unveiled a gender-balanced Cabinet.

Upon this decision, eleven women and eleven men will now form Horgan’s twenty-two-member Cabinet. For followers of federal politics, this announcement will doubtlessly bring to mind Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s 2015 reveal of a federal Cabinet with gender parity.

Gender quotas—which generally refer to rules that mandate a certain number or percentage of women are elected or, alternatively, serve as candidates—are not a new phenomenon in Canadian politics, at least at the party level. In 1993, for instance, the federal NDP adopted a gender quota stipulating that 50% of candidates be women, while the federal Liberals soon followed with a similar 25% gender quota. Horgan’s own BC NDP likewise adopted an equity policy designed to increase the number of female NDP candidates.

On Tuesday, June 18th, BC Premier John Horgan formed the province’s first gender-balanced Cabinet. (https://news.gov.bc.ca/releases/2017PREM0061-001322)

Nevertheless, Horgan’s and Trudeau’s gender-balanced Cabinets—the first gender-balanced Cabinet in BC history and the first gender-balanced federal Cabinet, respectively—demonstrate that the idea of such Cabinets has rapidly spread across the country and across party lines in a few short years. But what is the reasoning behind forming a gender-balanced Cabinet? In other words, what do Horgan and Trudeau hope to achieve by selecting an equal number of women and men to serve in their Cabinets? And will gender-balanced Cabinets really achieve these goals, or will outside factors—and unintended consequences—hamper Horgan’s and Trudeau’s aims?

 

Why gender parity?

In recent years, questions regarding gender equality have come to permeate the fields of economics and politics. International organizations like UN Women and the IMF contend that gender discrimination, exploitation, and disproportionate poverty have impeded women’s participation rate and productivity in the workforce. Hence, as the IMF writes, “elimination of barriers against women working in certain sectors or occupations could increase output by raising women’s participation and labor productivity by as much as 25 percent in some countries through better allocation of their skills and talent .” In essence, tackling issues related to gender inequality may foster economic growth and development.

Likewise, Canadian politicians of all stripes have highlighted the apparent gap between women’s representation in Canada as a whole, where they constitute about 50% of the population and women’s representation as elected officials. In fact, women make up approximately 25% of Members of Parliament as of 2015. Women are also underrepresented at the provincial and territorial level. Even BC, which as of May 2017 has the highest proportion of women elected to its provincial legislature in Canada, falls below the 50% mark when it comes to female representation. But why are seemingly so few women elected to office?

Former Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose wrote in MacLean’s that throughout her political career, she has been “mocked, dismissed, insulted, threatened (including with sexual violence), underestimated, cyber-bullied, sexually harassed, disrespected and ignored” due to her gender and urged aspiring female politicians to run for elected office.

rona ambrose
Rona Ambrose. (Photograph by Blair Gable)

“mocked, dismissed, insulted, threatened (including with sexual violence), underestimated, cyber-bullied, sexually harassed, disrespected and ignored” – Former Conservative Interim Leader Rona Ambrose on her political career

On the other side of the House, Liberal MP Anita Vandenbeld wrote in The Ottawa Citizen that women are less likely to even consider nominating themselves as political candidates than their male counterparts. Vandenbeld cites the perception that feminine traits and stereotypes like compassion, niceness, and cooperation make potential candidates “unelectable,” coupled with the monetary and time demands of electoral campaigning, which often put women—who tend not to possess as many financial connections as their male counterparts—at a disadvantage.

By removing these obstacles to political candidacy, Vandenbeld writes, “we will attract not just more women but more good people to public life.” Similarly, Niki Ashton, the first woman to enter the ongoing federal NDP leadership race, announced that she was pregnant while on the leadership campaign trail and stated that she was “challenging the notion you can only do one thing at a time is key—or that pregnancy derails the course of your life.” These political figures’ statements speak to the emergence of a cross-partisan view: that more women ought to enter the political arena, but may be prevented from doing so for a variety of reasons.

The same sentiment is reflected in this Library of Parliament-published overview of Canadian women’s political participation, which states, “evidence indicates that voters do not actively discriminate against female candidates.” Rather, stereotypes surrounding women, notably perceptions that only men can be capable leaders, women’s disproportionate share of caregiving responsibilities and unpaid work, as well as women’s difficulty obtaining party nominations conspire to make politics a difficult and hard-won career path for many capable, qualified women.

Further, in this writer’s view, representation is a key element of Canadian politics. Several important cleavages in Canadian society, such as region and language, are reflected in Canada’s political structure. Provisions for regional representation are made in the Senate and, by convention, the Cabinet. Meanwhile, since 1952, the position of Governor-General has traditionally alternated between Anglophone and Francophone Heads of State to ensure that both official languages are fairly represented. Indeed, Members of Parliament (MPs) are collectively responsible for representing the Canadian population and making legislative decisions on their behalf. Nonetheless, when there is a substantial difference between political representation and the make-up of our country’s population, as in the case of female representation in Canada’s legislatures, problems begin to arise.

Significantly, when policymakers discuss matters relevant to women, such as childcare and violence against women, these important issues are being debated mainly by male politicians who do not have a personal stake involved. For this reason, the inclusion of women’s voices in the political arena may lead to more informed and inclusive legislative decisions being made.

Canada’s gender gap on political representation, however, is closing at the abysmal rate of 0.2% annually. At this rate, Canada will not close this gap for another three hundred eighty-seven years. Canadians cannot wait until the year 2402 to achieve equal representation of women in the House of Commons. Action must be taken now. Despite the appearance of a growing consensus among politicians when it comes to women and political representation, however, a wide array of questions, doubts, and clashing views abound when one considers how, exactly, we should go about improving women’s representation in political life.

Divergent paths

This is where the notion of a gender-balanced Cabinet enters the picture. Before—and after—Trudeau justified his Cabinet picks with a laconic “because it’s 2015,” politicians, scholars, journalists, and organizations have hotly debated the potential merits and costs of a gender-balanced Cabinet.

On one hand, a position in the Cabinet puts elected women in a place to meaningfully influence government actions. Party discipline, meaning rigorous measures taken to ensure that members of the governing party vote in accordance with party policy, has long been a feature of the House of Commons and of many provincial and territorial legislatures.

Consequently, female private members (or so-called “backbenchers”) may feel unable to speak out without endangering their positions in their parties. If one hopes that, as proponents of quotas argue, that a higher number of elected women will translate to a greater amount of vocal advocates for issues affecting women, in the context of Canadian politics, one might end up sorely disappointed. Conversely, as the Prime Minister (or Premier) and Cabinet are responsible for setting the government’s legislative agenda, the presence of elected women in the Cabinet might seem like an effective way of putting female MPs in a position to truly influence policy.

gender balanced cabinet
Trudeau hopes to carve a new path in the realm of global politics that sees equal representation of women and men in the legislative process

On the other hand, writers and policymakers have worried that an emphasis on achieving a gender-balanced Cabinet might lead to an otherwise well-suited potential Cabinet picks being neglected. For some, these doubts were allayed upon the reveal of Trudeau’s Cabinet, which in the words of McMaster political science professor Karen Bird (quoted in this MacLean’s piece), benefited from “a really deep pool of very talented women MPs who were elected to…[the Liberal] caucus.” However, gender quotas have long been plagued by fears of tokenization and stigma. Here, tokenization refers to the practice of appointing women (or members of any other group) to positions of power—without allowing these individuals to actually exercise that power. The word “stigma” applies to women who achieve positions under a quota system and as a result are seen as less competent, merely holding their positions in order to fulfill the prescribed quota.

Therefore, opponents of quotas contend these women may not be taken seriously by their colleagues and the electorate. For these reasons, some writers and researchers seeking to improve women’s lot in political life (and in other fields) have advocated for “alternatives” to quotas, from financial support for women political candidates to policies targeting the gender wage gap, and beyond.

For this writer, however, this is not an either-or-question. Gender-balanced Cabinets like those in Ottawa and Victoria can be powerful tools to promote women’s political engagement, yet their success hinges on the policies and systems which surround them. According to Drude Dahlerup, a Stockholm University professor who has written extensively on women in politics, the most effective gender quotas are the ones complemented by supporting policies and social change. In this case, six further actions must be taken for gender-balanced Cabinets to achieve its aim of bolstering women’s voices—and to avoid falling into the potential pitfalls identified above.

Step One: Recruit, recruit, recruit

As noted above, gender quotas and similar equity policies are often put in place to level the playing field—to enable otherwise talented, competent women politicians facing barriers due to their gender to become political candidates, be elected, or hold certain leadership positions. According to Bird, to achieve this goal (and avoid falling prey to accusations of choosing unqualified women over men with more merit), political parties must make an effort to recruit experienced, qualified women. This course of action is especially important because, compared to their male counterparts, women tend to be less likely to view themselves as potential political candidates. Therefore, while 169 capable women (enough to fill 50% of seats in the House of Commons) doubtlessly exist, extra efforts are needed to reach out to these women. Then, of course, there’s the matter of these women’s election prospects. This brings us to our next action: changing the way in which we approach elections.

Step Two: Change the rules of the game

As political candidates, women are more likely than men to be placed in so-called “unwinnable” ridings, meaning ridings (as the name implies) past election results indicate that their party is unlikely to win. This means that even when women become political candidates, their chances of being elected tend to be lower than those of male candidates. There are multiple ways for governments and political parties to surmount this barrier. For instance, parties could simply recruit more women candidates for safe ridings, since as noted, there is no substantial evidence of a bias against women candidates among Canadian voters.

Alternatively, the government could alter the electoral system itself. Systems with proportional representation (PR), for example, are correlated with the election of greater numbers of women compared to first past the post systems like Canada’s. (In PR systems, the number of seats in the legislature obtained by each political party is directly proportional to the number of votes which the party has received, while in first past the post systems the winning candidate in each constituency must gain at least one more vote than the other candidates to win their seat.)

In theory, PR would seemingly promote women’s political representation because in first past the post systems parties can only put forward a single candidate per riding. As a result, parties logically nominate whom they believe to be their strongest or best-suited candidate, which given the aforementioned gender biases, suggests that relatively few female candidates are nominated in such systems.

In a PR system, however, voters in each riding generally provide input on more than one seat. Further, the number of seats which a party achieves does not solely depend on their standing within a particular riding, but also on their overall support across the country, so parties in a PR system must appeal to a wider range of voters and hence have an incentive to include a diverse array of candidates, including women.

Step Three: Adapt legislatures to women’s lives

The challenges don’t end once women are elected to office—nor when they are appointed to Cabinet posts. Women perform a significantly greater share of unpaid work than men, including caregiving and household responsibilities. Unpaid caregivers often have erratic and varied schedules.

The scheduling needs of senior leaders and executives, however, do not reflect the realities of many women’s lives.

Women who achieve senior leadership positions, in both politics and other areas, often face extended work hours, extensive travel, and 24/7 availability. As a result, it is often difficult to retain women in senior leadership positions. Thus, proxy voting, a practice where one member casts a ballot on behalf of an absent Member, provides a way for MPs who have caregiving responsibilities or are nursing mothers to uphold their duties as Members when they must leave the Chamber. As well, for Members of Parliament, parental leave is not included their pay and benefits packages. In fact, if MPs are absent from the House for more than twenty-one sitting days, their pay will be cut by $120 per day for each day they are absent. While MPs are permitted to miss sitting days for reasons such as official business and illness, familial responsibilities are not included among these reasons. Given the time commitments required of positions in the Cabinet and leadership positions within parties, it is essential for female Ministers, party leaders, and those in other key roles that provisions are made for parental leave and that existing childcare services are expanded.

Step Four: Remove barriers within the Cabinet

Forming a Cabinet with gender parity does not always foster gender equality within the Cabinet itself. While women Ministers around the globe boast a wide range of portfolios, women Ministers’ most common duties include areas associated with the “feminine” qualities of nurturing and caregiving, like family, youth, and education. In contrast, relatively few hold portfolios like finance or national defense. This disparity shows that those who decide to form gender-balanced Cabinets in the pursuit of enhancing women’s political influence must take care to ensure that female Ministers’ portfolios are not limited to low-priority, lower-funded, or traditionally “feminine” areas.

Step Five: Consider all aspects of representation

While the importance of representing women and their voices in politics is one of the foundations of gender quotas, it is worth noting that despite the existence of broad terms like “women’s issues,” not all women have the same experiences, value the same issues, or hold the same views. For example, women from rural ridings (whose political representation is lacking compared to that of their urban counterparts) may find that their local issues are quite different from the problems which their urban colleagues seek to address.

Although the optimal way to include more women from underrepresented backgrounds, professions, and locations is itself a matter of debate (recruitment campaigns? financial support? more quotas, and if so, what kind of quotas?), if governments form gender-based Cabinets in order to better represent women’s experiences and voices, they must consider how to represent the breadth of different women’s experiences and voices as well.

Step Six: Shape the future

To sustain a gender-balanced Cabinet, in addition to further improving women’s political representation, we need to think ahead to the next generation of women leaders.

Initiatives aimed at introducing girls and young women to non-traditional fields, such Women in Science and Engineering for STEM and Daughters of the Vote for politics and leadership, could challenge the internal biases and self-perceptions that can impede women’s political careers.

As well, as Kate McInturff writes in this report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, governments seeking to advance the status of women should support women’s civil society organizations. These groups can address certain issues in a way that formal political institutions often cannot. For example, such organizations may assist women survivors of domestic violence, which is often unreported in formal channels. Through the work of schools, role models, organizations, and educational programs, we can tackle the stereotypes, societal roles, and discrimination that inform factors limiting women’s political representation. These long-term actions would help to create a pool of skilled, dedicated, and eager women candidates for future elections—and Cabinet selections.

A call to action

Ultimately, a multitude of factors will determine whether the gender parity aspect of Trudeau’s and Horgan’s Cabinets will leave a lasting impact on Canada’s political landscape. Nonetheless, as we wait to see whether future governments, other provinces and territories, or even other countries adopt the same approach, one thing is certain: we must act now. It has been nearly one hundred years since Agnes Macphail became Canada’s first female Member of Parliament, yet few women’s voices can be heard in Canada’s legislatures today. When it comes to women’s political representation, Canada cannot continue to follow the same paths as we have for the past century. Like Ms. Macphail, we must blaze a trail.

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