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Closing the electoral gap: Canada’s glacial march towards gender equality

Canada has made significant progress on gender parity among elected officials, but there is still a long way to go.

February 28, 2023

9-minute read

At the end of November, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hosted Prime Minister Sanna Marin and a trade delegation from Finland, the first-ever visit from a Finnish prime minister. At their news conference, Prime Minister Ardern wasn’t asked about her deft handling of the COVID-19 pandemic,1 the trade relationship between the two countries, or the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Finland’s bid to join NATO.

No. Right off the top a reporter asked whether the leaders were meeting “just because you're similar in age and, you know, got a lot of common stuff? Or can Kiwis actually expect to see more deals down the line between the two countries?”2

Ardern, looking incredulous, batted off the question: “We of course have a higher proportion of men in politics, it’s reality. Because two women meet, it’s not simply because of their gender.”

This is par for the course for female leaders. It’s a pretty rare sight—just 28 countries of 193 are represented by elected female leaders, according to UN Women figures.3 And only 32 countries have 40 per cent or more of women in parliament in single or lower houses.

Both Ardern and Marin deal constantly with questions about their gender and their age, their competency to serve as leaders, their roles as mothers, and their private lives. The challenges facing female leaders and politicians in Canada are no different.

Women are stepping forward to put their name on the ballot at all levels of government. In 2021, 762 women ran for office federally, enough to fill the House of Commons twice over.But our system throws up lots of barriers—not just gender stereotypes about women’s capabilities and proper roles5 but other structural factors, such as party gatekeeping, our “first past the post” electoral system, and lack of access to the resources necessary to support a successful bid.6

The increase and intensity of online hate and harassment targeting women, 2SLGBTQ+ people, as well as Indigenous, Black and other racialized candidates is yet another obstacle to women’s political equality—one that’s gotten appreciably worse in the last two years.7 It’s not surprising that the march toward gender parity has been so achingly slow.

Canada’s record

Gender parity took centre stage back in 2015 when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Canada’s first-ever gender-equal federal cabinet, a move that pushed up Canada’s ranking on the Global Gender Gap Index from 35th to 16th place in 2017. Since that time, our ranking has fallen to 25th place in 2022 as other countries stepped up.8

Only 30.5% of the seats in the federal parliament are occupied by women,9,10—placing Canada 60th in the international rankings,11 down from 27th at the turn of the century.12 Female representation in provincial and territorial legislatures is slightly higher, on average—at 35.8% in 2022—but it ranges considerably from a high of 52.6% in Northwest Territories (2019) to a low of 22.5% in Newfoundland and Labrador (2021). Heather Stefanson (Manitoba), Caroline Cochrane (NWT) and Danielle Smith (Alberta) are the only female premiers in office.

Political participation is the one area in which rapid change is possible (all it takes is an election). Yet there is a considerable distance to go to close this gap. 

Between the 2019 and 2021 elections, the number of women serving in the House of Commons increased by three, while eight more women joined the ranks of those serving in provincial and territorial legislatures up to and including the recent Quebec election. At this rate, we’ll be lucky to reach parity by mid century.  

Municipal rankings 

The argument goes that it is easier for women to succeed at the local level. As Erin Tolley and Mireille Paquet note in their study of Valérie Plante’s mayoralty win in Montreal, “municipal politics is often viewed as more compatible with women’s interests, less competitive, less expensive, and more part-time."13 But the reality is that only about 20% of Canada’s mayors and about 33% of all municipal councillors are women.14 

Women’s political representation does tend to be higher, however, in larger communities. Our own review of recent elections in 26 large urban regions found women, on average, represented 43% of the councillors in large cities.15 Indeed, there was an increase in women’s representation between 2019 and 2022. But again, there was huge variation between top-ranking Waterloo and Sherbrooke, with representation over 70% and bottom-ranking Windsor and Oshawa, both at 9%.

After municipal elections in 2022, just five out of 30 cities had achieved gender parity or more. In particular, there were notable increases in female representation in Edmonton, Halifax and Sherbrooke. Edmonton and Halifax both rocketed from the bottom of the 2019 league table (at 28th and 29th) to the top in 2022, reaching 3rd and 6th place, respectively, with both cities electing eight female councillors in their most recent elections.16

Sherbrooke increased its complement of female councillors by five, achieving gender parity and electing its first female mayor.17

At the same time, Vancouver and Victoria fell out of the top five this past fall. Women’s representation fell below 50% in Vancouver and below 40% in Victoria.

Other cities with the lowest levels of representation in 2019, such as Mission, Kingston and Windsor, made no headway in their recent elections. Windsor was ranked 30th in 2019 and 30th in 2022. Kelowna, Winnipeg and Oshawa all had levels of women’s representation below the benchmark for core cities in 201918 and fell further down the ranks in 2022.

As noted, political participation is the one area in which rapid change is possible. Achieving lasting change, though, is a challenge of a different magnitude.

Gender parity on the agenda

Countries such as Mexico, Argentina, France, Spain and Belgium are showing the world how it’s done, leading the way towards greater gender parity through changes to the laws governing candidate selection and elections.

More than 80 countries now have statutory gender quotas setting a minimum quota for women candidates; 18 in Europe and the Americas have set a 50% benchmark, four of whom have enshrined gender parity in their constitutions.19

By contrast, political parties in Canada have actively resisted even voluntary quotas for the percentage of female candidates they field in elections and have been reluctant to publicly report on their nomination and recruitment efforts.

Parties talk a good game, but electoral studies reveal, time and again, that women and candidates from other marginalized groups end up being nominated in ridings where the odds of success are slim.20 For every 100 women who ran in the 2019 federal election, only 16 won a seat in the House of Commons. For every 100 men running, 29 took the prize.21

Not surprisingly, “hard” rules, such as statutory quotas and greater transparency, and accountability on the part of political parties are much better strategies for overcoming systemic barriers to political participation—compared to voluntary or “soft” measures, such as campaign boot camps and networking events.22

In Mexico, for example, the 300 federal single-member districts of the Chamber of Deputies are divided for each party into three groups: winning, competitive and losing. The party must achieve gender balance within each grouping—ensuring broad representation of candidates across all districts. This approach has been remarkably successful in advancing gender parity.23

Time for Canada to step up

Last year, as Canada’s federal parties were hosting nomination meetings in advance of the 2021 election, Senator Donna Dasko proposed that parties be required to disclose the sex/gender of proposed candidates on their nomination papers and to report on electoral results by sex/gender in stronghold ridings, as Mexico does. She also suggested that we change our political financing rules “to incentivize or sanction the parties to achieve gender equity.”24

There is certainly no shortage of ideas and strategies for overcoming the obstacles preventing women and other under-represented groups from fully participating in Canadian politics, from individual level interventions (e.g., encouraging mentorship, creating pipelines of candidates and leaders and improving access to knowledge and resources) to structural reforms and accountability measures of the type Senator Dasko is calling for.

Advocacy groups have taken up this cause. Vancouver-based Women Transforming Cities25 and ParityYEG (in Edmonton)26 are just two of the local groups identifying and mentoring potential candidates. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities has created a Toward Parity Framework27 and provided project funding to local groups to help women run for office—with a particular focus on Indigenous, Black, racialized, youth and 2SLGBTQ+ community members.28 Groupe Femmes, Politique et Démocratie, works in Quebec to advance the greater participation of women in political life.29 Equal Voice pursues similar work at the national level, hosting campaign schools, tracking election results, and engaging young women through events like Daughters of the Vote.30

The research suggests that all of this work is necessary to break down structural and attitudinal barriers. Erin Tolley and Mireille Paquet, for example, in their analysis of Valérie Plante’s win, note that the Projet Montréal’s institutional commitment to developing women leaders from the ground up played a key role in facilitating Plante’s success.

Yet, they conclude, it was the party’s decentralized leadership model, strong grassroot engagement and clear policy platform that gave Plante the edge over the leader-centric campaign of Denis Coderre, as it helped to dampen the effects of stereotypes about women leaders. Indeed, Projet Montréal worked successfully to depersonalize Plante’s candidacy—to de-emphasize her gender—and sustain the focus on the party and the issues.31

All of which to say, it was a particular confluence of factors that helped Valérie Plante surmount the considerable gendered obstacles in her path.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s surprise resignation on January 19th is a stark reminder, if needed, of the scale of the challenge. Recognized globally for her exemplary leadership, subject to rising levels of hatred and vitriol, Ardern said at her news conference that she had nothing left “in the tank” to give to the job. “Politicians are human … We give all that we can, for as long as we can, and then it’s time. And for me, it’s time."

Ardern’s extraordinary accomplishments only heighten our collective sense of loss as she takes her future into her own hands.

Anti-feminist sentiment remains a powerful force in politics. Successful women leaders represent a potent threat to established male elites. The electoral losses in Vancouver and Victoria in October 2022 highlight how fleeting women’s political gains can be. Ardern’s decision confirms, again, how significant the personal toll is—even for those who have attained the highest offices.

Canada has a playbook for improving the diversity and inclusion of our political institutions and advancing the political rights of the most marginalized. Given the polarizing character of modern-day politics and the spectre of authoritarianism in many countries across the globe, it’s crucial that Canadians get democracy right.

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