Female politicians face uphill climb despite gender-balanced cabinet
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau brought about the nation’s first gender-balanced cabinet during the 2015 federal election. Although historic, achieving gender parity in the cabinet does not reflect the continued struggles women face in achieving equality within the functions of government and political spheres across the nation.
Patty Hajdu, MP for Thunder Bay-North Superior and Minister of Status of Women, says empowering women is effective in breaking cycles of deep-rooted, intergenerational inequality.
The reality is, to not have better representation of women in our national parliament is short-changing ourselves.— Nancy Peckford, executive director of Equal Voice
“(Canada’s gender-balanced cabinet) allows women who are watching from the sidelines to see (that) you don’t have to look and sound a specific way,” explains Nancy Peckford, executive director of Equal Voice. “You can bring a variety of life experiences to the job and you can participate at multiple ages and stages of life.”
Peckford says that while the equal number of female ministers increases the visibility of female politicians on the national landscape, it can be misleading.
“Sadly the rate of change (of female participation) has been somewhat glacial,” Peckford says. “I think people make assumptions about the number of women in politics sometimes that don’t reflect the ongoing and systemic underrepresentation.”
Illusion of equality
Municipally, only four of Ottawa’s 23 ward councillors are women; Kanata North Coun. Marianne Wilkinson, Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney, Gloucester-Southgate Coun. Diane Deans and Barrhaven Coun. Jan Harder.
Of Canada’s 13 provincial and territorial Premiers, the only three females are Kathleen Wynne, Christy Clark and Rachel Notley, the premiers of Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta, respectively.
“I think women need to realize that you don’t have to be part of the ‘good ol’ boys’ club’. “
Federally, 88 of Canada’s 338 Members of Parliament are women, meaning female politicians make up only 26 per cent of the House of Commons.
Based on projections made during the last federal election, Peckford says Equal Voice estimates that it would take 45 years for women to achieve parity on the ballot.
Canada’s House of Commons Committees reflect this ongoing gender imbalance. The committees, small groups functioning within specific areas of national policy, legislation and interest, execute work that would otherwise be difficult to do in an assembly of 338 people. Of Canada’s 88 elected women in the House, 50 are female Members of Parliament appointed to the Liberal caucus. Among these women, 15 hold cabinet positions and 12 are parliamentary secretaries leaving only 23 women to be distributed among the 27 committees. This means that on the government side, it is mathematically impossible to have at least one woman on each committee.
On the opposition side, Conservative, NDP and Green Party female MPs total 33, however, they have fewer spots available on committees.
“When you divide 88 women among three parties, there are limits to how many women you can deploy to ensure fully equitable participation,” Peckford says. “Is that really an equal voice?”
Peckford says that the contributions of women provide different perspectives, better and more rigorous conversations and ultimately better policy outcomes for men and women.
“The reality is, to not have better representation of women in our national parliament is short-changing ourselves,” Peckford says.
Barriers women face
Despite Canada’s progress over the past 100 years, significant barriers persist and emerge, making entering politics more challenging for women; female politicians face obstacles of online harassment, confidence issues, funding and balancing familial responsibilities, experts and politicians say.
Social media harassment
Catherine McKenna, MP for Ottawa Centre and Minister of Environment and Climate Change, says that the kinds of misogynistic, sexist harassment female politicians face online yields unfortunate, two-fold results.
The harassment she faces on a daily basis is often hateful, personal attacks on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms.
“I’m called ‘Climate Barbie’ by some group of people, which is clearly meant to demean me,” McKenna says. “People talk about your sex, make comments about your looks, your abilities and put ugly pictures of you up and make fun of you.”
For the most part, McKenna says she makes use of Twitter’s ‘mute’ and ‘block’ functions while occasionally replying to online misogynists.
“In some ways, I don’t really care because I’m here to do a job,” McKenna explains. “But it’s not helpful for other women who want to get into politics…it can drive good people out and it’s going to prevent good people from coming in.”
Women have to be asked to run as many as 12 times before they’ll decided to run, McKenna says, referencing Liberal research. Women self-identify as strong, viable and winning candidates much less often than men, Peckford says.
“I think women need to realize that you don’t have to be part of the ‘good ol’ boys’ club’,” McKenna says. “I knew people, but I had not been very involved in the party on the grassroots level because I was busy having kids.”
Wilkinson, who hosts an annual breakfast for International Women’s Day, runs workshops for and mentors women, says she encourages aspiring politicians to start early, develop networks and become actively involved in the community.
“I still knock on doors…people like the fact that they see you,” says the Councillor, who will be 80 at the end of this term. “You can’t do everything by social media because social media is remote and politics have a lot of things in them that are personal.”
Peckford says riding associations play a pivotal role in offsetting women’s lack of confidence.
“When riding associations begin thinking about individuals they would like to see contesting a nomination they don’t cast their net widely enough,” she says.
Peckford looks to the NDP as a beacon for encouraging the participation of women. In the past three federal elections, women have made up at least 40 per cent of the party’s candidates.
“Their riding associations ensure that women and underrepresented groups are sought out specifically before the riding association holds a nomination contest,” Peckford explains.
Finding a balance
In this job, the days are long, and if you’re a mother with young children, it’s even more challenging.— Minister Patty Hajdu
With a baby on her hip and two other children at home, Wilkinson became the first female to run for and be elected to the March Township council in 1969. Her children, then five, three and four-months-old, have never known any different than a mother passionately engaged in politics. Despite initial criticism she faced for being a working mother, she takes pride in her nearly 30 years of political engagement.
McKenna and Hajdu say balancing these kinds of familial responsibilities is still a challenge for female politicians.
“I think it’s important that we also carve out some space for the things that are really important,” says McKenna, who has three children. “One more meeting isn’t going to make the difference but if my kids aren’t happy, it will (make a difference) in terms of how I perform.”
Hajdu says in order to encourage more diverse female representation some parliamentary structures must change.
“As a single mother who raised two boys, getting to the point where I was able to shape policies wasn’t easy. Parliament is not necessarily a family-friendly place,” she says. “In this job, the days are long, and if you’re a mother with young children, it’s even more challenging.”
McKenna says that the issue of unequal representation is a cyclical conundrum, because combatting some of the issues women face requires more women challenging them.
“If everyone’s focus is always on how challenging it is, we’re never going to get enough women in there to actually change these issues that make it more challenging,” she explains.
“We need more smart women to go into politics that care passionately about issues. It can be tough,” McKenna says. “But there’s a network to support you. I’m certainly happy to support you!”
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