Gender Parity In Politics Can't Wait Another 100 Years

04/18/2016 09:48 EDT | Updated 04/19/2017 05:12 EDT
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"A better democracy is a democracy where women do not only have the right to vote and to elect, but to be elected."

These are fitting words from Chilean president Michelle Bachelet as we near April 19, 2016, the 100th anniversary of some women getting the vote in Alberta. I say some women, because it wasn't all women in Alberta who did. Indigenous women, for example, wouldn't get the right until 1960.

Reflecting on the past 100 years, it's important to recognize the strides that have been made when it comes to women in politics. But how far have we really come?

In 1933, in Edmonton, city council had one woman representative. More than eight decades later, in 2016, there's still just one.

That's not to say, however, that it's always been this way. In 1989, six women were on Edmonton's city council, led by a dynamic woman mayor. Similarly, the Calgary City Council elected in 2004 boasted six women city councillors while, in 2016, there are just two.

It's clear that at the municipal level in Canada, there's not been much in the way of sustained progress to reach gender parity in politics.

At the provincial level, three provinces are led by women, including Premier Rachel Notley in Alberta. Women make up 53 per cent of our province's cabinet ministers. In 2006, it was a mere 11 per cent. So, in a decade, that's progress.

Federally, as in Alberta, cabinet is gender-balanced, a move that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau justified with the now oft-quoted "because it's 2015." Yet, in 2016, it must be noted that only 26 per cent of seats in the House of Commons are held by women.

So, why is it that the lack of gender parity remains so pronounced in most levels of government across Canada?

Unless there are dramatic changes in legislation, or until concrete measures are taken, it's unlikely that Canada will achieve gender parity in politics until 2075.

Much has been written on the barriers that women in politics face. Some of the most frequently cited, as summarized by Equal Voice, include: stereotyping and perceptions of women's roles and abilities, lack of women role models, media imbalances in the treatment of women politicians, family commitments, masculine political environments, failure of political parties to support women candidates, lack of finances and exclusion from informal party networks.

How can we most effectively break these barriers? We do so by confronting the issues directly -- by getting more women to run for office and, in turn, by getting more women elected.

But the fact is that many of these challenges exist for women even before they decide to run for office -- if they run at all, that is. Most women need to be asked multiple times to run.

Former NDP President, Rebecca Blaikie, mentioned that, when recruiting candidates, she ends up approaching at least 30 women for every man. Often, she says, women will think that they're not qualified, while young men will proclaim with certainty that they're ready to run.

The fact is that the most common reason for which women hesitate or say "no" to running for office isn't because of family obligations, financial issues or any of the other commonly cited reasons, but it's that they don't feel qualified.

Many women will run for party nominations, but most political parties fail to consider gender equity in their nomination processes. Some argue that party recruitment and nominations constitute the biggest barrier to better representation of women in politics. And this matters because, as the research shows, time and time again, that when women run, they win.

And the research also shows that, unless there are dramatic changes in legislation, or until concrete measures are taken, it's unlikely that Canada will achieve gender parity in politics until 2075.

"Gender parity doesn't happen by chance and it doesn't happen automatically," former NDP MP Laurin Liu points out. So, like most things, we need to work for it. Like the second-wave feminists before us, and the suffragettes before them who conspired and organized for change, we need to do the same. And it needs to be purposeful and deliberate.

If we want public policy that represents women's concerns and we want institutions to be responsive to women's needs, a critical mass of at least 30 per cent women needs to be elected.

And in working for gender parity, we must also address issues of intersectionality. Getting women elected is a good step, but we must commit to electing women of colour, gay women, Indigenous women, trans persons and women with disabilities.

Just as the research shows that women in politics often focus on different issues than men do, different women look at issues from different lenses as well. A multitude of diverse women's voices is needed. If we want public policy that represents women's concerns and we want institutions to be responsive to women's needs, a critical mass of at least 30 per cent women needs to be elected.

So, let me get to my point in sharing this. My goal these days is to get women to run for office. This is something that involves persistence, as I've already learned -- a lot of it.

I would like you all to consider doing the same. Reflect on the women -- the female-identified people in your lives -- who you think would make great leaders. Perhaps you might even be one of these women.

Now, what I'd like to ask you to do is to make a commitment to ask at least one woman you know to run for office.

But I need to warn you. When you ask a woman to run, she might tell you to go fly a kite. Or worse. But then, you know what you do? You ask her again. And again. And probably again. And maybe once more.

We've got a task ahead of us -- and an important one, at that.

As we reflect on a centennial of voting rights for some women, let's envision legislative bodies that reflect all women.

And let's act now. We can't wait another 100 years.

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