Canada ranks 60th out of 187 countries based on the percentage of women in parliament according to an Inter-Parliamentary Union report on gender parity.
Some Canadians may be surprised to know that the top five spots belong to Rwanda (61 per cent); Cuba (53.4 per cent); Nicaragua (51.7 per cent); Mexico and United Arab Emirates (50 per cent).
With women representing 30.5 per cent of parliamentarians, Canada ranked slightly lower than Zimbabwe (30.6 per cent) and just ahead of Vietnam (30.3 per cent). The United States was 70th (28.5 per cent).
Reaching Gender Parity in Politics: We Still Have Room to Grow, an Abacus Data study (August 2022), revealed that two-in-three Canadians are either concerned, disappointed, surprised or angry to learn of Canada’s low ranking.
Of the 2,000 respondents polled, 84 per cent believe balance of power among men and women better represents constituents and is good for the economy.
Fewer than one in five respondents feel the onus is on women to run or voters to elect more women. A full 63 per cent think political parties, or the government, should be responsible for ensuring equal representation of women and men in politics.
The national Balance of Power campaign encourages Canadians to help the country achieve gender parity in politics by 2030.
Commissioned by Informed Opinions (IO), the results were the impetus for the non-profit to launch a first-of-its-kind campaign encouraging political parties to increase female representation at all levels of government.
Canada falling behind other nations in gender parity
In a recent interview with rabble.ca, Shari Graydon, CEO of IO, noted that in just two decades, Canada’s ranking dropped a full 32 spots from 27th to 59th. Astoundingly, while the Abacus study was being conducted, Canada dropped an additional ranking to 60th place.
“Canada is losing ground when it comes to parity in politics and the fact that women hold less than a third of elected seats prevents us from developing policies and tabling budgets that reflect the needs of all citizens,” said Graydon.
For Graydon, this political inequality is extremely detrimental to the country as a whole. That’s because women experience many aspects of life differently from men and those realities inform insights and ideas.
As it now stands, 70 per cent of politicians will never experience periods, pregnancy, childbirth or pay discrimination. They most likely won’t be sexually objectified, harassed or assaulted.
According to Graydon, these differences explain why men alone cannot address the needs of Canadian women and she believes, their track records prove her point.
That’s why Graydon is, “Hoping to foment a revolution from Canadians who expect better.” She’s referring to engagement from both Canadian women and men who, until now, were unaware of just how bad Canada is doing with regards to political equity.
“We know diversity means more reliable health care, financial policies and budgets. We also know the status of women is a good indication of the country as a whole,” Graydon said.
In the past 20 years, Canada has inched up from 20 per cent to 30 per cent female representation. At that rate it will take until 2062 to reach gender parity.
Gender balance an essential part of democracy
Graydon says it’s really not hard to reach parity when viewed as an issue of fundamental fairness and an essential part of democracy.
She cites complacency as the culprit.
“We thought we were a leader. We had international attention when Justine Trudeau had a balanced cabinet. But he gave us that despite women making up less than one-third of elected representatives,” she said.
Multiple barriers keep women from running and from getting elected. Not the least of which includes the old boys’ network that operates in political parties. Women continue to be less present in the standard pipelines and routes to power.
Additionally, when women are recruited, they generally receive less funding than male counterparts and are sacrificed in unwinnable ridings. Neither of these token gestures does a thing to narrow the gender gap.
“Political parties have the power to achieve gender parity by making necessary changes to their practices and policies,” observed Graydon. They just need the political will.
Whether running for office or while holding it, women face greater criticism and have to deal with toxic abuse that their male counterparts don’t encounter. Both Catherine McKenna and Chrystia Freeland experienced vicious attacks for their work within their ministerial portfolio and general party politics respectively.
Graydon believes that having 50 per cent women in Parliament means less testosterone and that brings a different quality to the conversation as well as more collaboration. More women also help keep bad actors in the house in check.
Gender quotas increase candidate quality
It’s important to remember that countries around the world dealing with these same issues are still able to elect more women. A fact that can often be attributed to establishing voluntary gender quotas.
Iceland (47.6 per cent) and New Zealand (49.2 per cent) have voluntary gender quotas that have been adopted by political parties. Both countries are also headed by female prime ministers.
The belief that such quotas undermine the quality of female candidates is unfounded. In fact, by ensuring women a more level playing field, unexceptional men find it increasingly difficult to get elected because, as the research shows, women who run are generally more qualified for these positions than their male counterparts.
Currently, over 80 countries have set minimum targets for women’s representation and tasked political parties with meeting them.
Canada’s federal parties already appoint 83 per cent of the candidates they run – it’s just that most of them are men.
In Quebec, however, this is not the case. Women held more than 44 per cent of the seats in the last provincial parliament (2018) and are expected to win up to 47 per cent in the next one (2022).
This is in part because advocates have been pressing the government for years to introduce hard targets. The prospect of targets incentivized parties to recruit and support more women.
“We need to learn from countries that have adapted their political systems to ensure that women’s perspectives and experiences are meaningfully reflected in government decision-making,” Graydon said.
While campaign schools are often held up as a solution, Graydon believes they provide useful information while reinforcing the importance of representation. What these schools fail to do is address the systemic barriers that keep women out of office.
More importantly, campaign schools imply that women somehow need training before they can launch their political careers. That stands in stark contrast to their male counterparts who are often portrayed as being ‘natural’ politicians.
“I have learned so much that has made me angry and more vehement because other countries are doing better. We need to mobilize Canadians to recognize how fundamentally indefensible this is,” said Graydon.
To that end, the Balance of Power campaign is asking Canadians to say no to the status quo by emailing their MP, MLA, MNA, MPP – lists available on the site – telling them Canadians not only expect better gender representation, but that they will be voting for it.
For more information and to join the Balance of Power campaign, visit https://www.balanceofpower.ca/.
Informed Opinions has been working to improve the portrayal and representation of women in the media and amplifying women’s voices through research, advocacy, and thought leadership for more than four decades. Founded in 1981 as MediaWatch, the organization has evolved with the times and remains the only national Canadian initiative addressing women’s engagement in public discourse, which the organization says has never been more critical.