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Gender Equity: We Need A Genuine Shift In The Political Landscape

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rona ambroseRona Ambrose is seen during question period in the House of Commons. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)

These next few days are like festival season for political people: in Winnipeg the Liberal party is gathering for the 2016 Biennial Convention while over in Vancouver, the Conservative Party are also in the midst of their national convention.

Gender equity and increasing the number of female candidates will be a hot topic for both. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his core team have made this a clear priority for this Liberal Party and for the Conservatives, a more gender inclusive party has to be an essential part of their renewal efforts.

The bar has been raised on expectations.

And yet, despite PM Trudeau's ground-breaking appointment of our current gender balanced ministerial cabinet, Canada still has a long way to go before the political landscape is conducive to supporting genuine gender equity.

There's the everyday sexism that Michelle Rempel described in her op-ed; the near daily online abuse that Alberta Environment Minister Shannon Phillips says she receives and the hard fact that the numbers of women elected to the House is only incrementally advancing.

Canada still has a long way to go before the political landscape is conducive to supporting genuine gender equity.

According to the UN a minimum 30 per cent female representation is required to actually have an impact on policy and practice and to reap the benefits that increasing the number of female representatives would generate.

And to be clear, the case for gender equity in Parliament goes beyond arguments of fairness and representation (even though those should be enough).

Research consistently shows that increasing gender equity in government (just as in the private sector) results in increased prosperity for a greater number of citizens.

So why are we stuck?

Although political parties, activist organizations like Equal Voice and concerned citizens have been long been both calling out and working to advance this issue -- actual progress has been incremental.

To actually change the ratio of female MPs we need to also focus on changing the gender ratio of the core positions and roles which form the architecture of the political system and which in turn also help set the tone of the political climate and landscape.

The Globe & Mail described the last election as a "landslide for the Liberals but a glacial creep forward for women in Parliament. Canadians voters elected 88 female MPs putting female representation in the House at 26 per cent -- a 1 per cent increase since 2011."

Equal Voice observed that, "...at this rate it will take another 11 federal elections to reach anything approximating gender balance on the ballot. That's about forty-five years."

Clearly it's time for a different and I would argue a more holistic approach to this issue.

Specifically, to actually change the ratio of female MPs we need to also focus on changing the gender ratio of the core positions and roles which form the architecture of the political system and which in turn also help set the tone of the political climate and landscape.

Now is the time to look to create gender equity in the roles that lead to candidates being nominated, as well as successfully elected.

Now is the time to look to create gender equity in the roles that lead to candidates being nominated, as well as successfully elected. This would increase the likelihood of reaching parity in the House.

To help further this discussion -- I'm currently working to launch a Political Index that will start by tracking the gender make up of these key roles in the Canadian political landscape.

In year one, the focus is on collecting and analyzing the data on the gender make up of federal riding associations across Canada and across party lines

Riding associations (which are the party's local organization unit) are generally the first point of political engagement for many Canadians and tactically are generally advantageous to have on side to win a nomination (making the executive association of ridings influential on the ground).

Not surprisingly, research shows that ideology notwithstanding a party's candidate is more likely to be a woman when the party's riding president is also a woman.

But currently we don't regularly measure the gender breakdown of these roles and without data; it is difficult to make a case for change.

My hope is that as the Index starts to regularly monitor these numbers, parties, led by their members will commit to making the internal changes that will create a ripple effect -- resulting in a genuine shift in the political landscape.

For instance, what if all parties agreed to push for a 50/50 split of riding associations executives what impact would that have on the number of candidates elected? Or even in how the process was run and what the norms and expectations are around what political leadership looks like?

Going forward in years two and three, the plan is to expand from federal riding association presidents to senior political advisers, the senior bureaucracy as well as federal campaign managers -- trying to assess a full 360 of the political machine since the lack of progress in electing women MPs speaks to systemic barriers throughout the political structure and culture.

By starting a data based discussion on the other key roles that lead to a successful campaign, parties can then be held accountable for making the changes and providing the tools that will lead to a genuinely different, more inclusive and effective political system.

In any case, it can't hurt to try.

Reva Seth is the best-selling author of two non-fiction books, a senior associate at Canada 2020 and the founder of the Optimal Living Lab.

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