Barriers to Women's Political Participation in Canada

By Thomas, Melanee | University of New Brunswick Law Journal, January 2013 | Go to article overview

Barriers to Women's Political Participation in Canada


Thomas, Melanee, University of New Brunswick Law Journal


THE CONTINUED UNDER-REPRESENTATION OF WOMEN IN CANADIAN POLITICS

In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir noted that, among other things, politics "has always been a man's world." (1) This statement remains as true today as it was when it was first published. In all aspects of political leadership--be that in the community, in advocacy, or in electoral politics--Canadian politics is a man's world. Here, I outline why this is the case, identifying obstacles to women's political participation at the individual, social, and political levels. I conclude by examining if targeted education efforts such as campaign schools can help women overcome these barriers.

It may be tempting to conclude that women have made great political gains in Canada. More women were elected to the House of Commons in 2011 than ever before in the past. As of early 2012, women lead six provincial or territorial governments: British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Nunavut. However, many of these women are in "glass cliff" circumstances: their party's electoral fortunes have declined to the point where their re-election prospects are grim. (2) Furthermore, these higher profile political events obscure the dearth of women in politics in Canada. Less than 20 per cent of the candidates nominated by major parties in 2011 were women; this is much the same as it was in 1997. (3) Stated differently, Canada's political parties nominate and elect about as many women today as they did fifteen years ago (see Appendix A). And yet, Canada's international ranking for women's political representation fell from 16th in

1997 to 49th in 2011. (4) It is hardly surprising that the Canadian electoral project the goal to elect 50 percent women to legislatures--is characterized as "stalled." (5)

Indeed, if women's political empowerment is measured as women's participation in political decision-making at the national level, then gender-based political inequality is the most pernicious and robust indicator of inequality. This is measured by the Global Gender Gap Reports (6) In the top-ranked country (Iceland), women's political empowerment is roughly two-thirds of men's; in Canada, women's political empowerment is less than 20 per cent of men's. (7)

Women's political underrepresentation is not restricted to names on federal election ballots. In 2010, women comprised a mere 25% of municipal elected representatives in some Canadian provinces. (8) This is the same rate of participation as the federal House of Commons, though municipal politics is broadly perceived to be more "woman friendly." Similarly, though women are as likely as men to vote, (9) academic research concludes they have been less likely than men to be members of political parties and civil society-based advocacy groups. (10) Research also shows that women are less likely than men to work on political campaigns for parties and for advocacy groups, to donate to political campaigns and causes, and to contact government officials, (11)

The most recent data suggest that some of these trends have changed over time, while others have persisted. According to the 2011 Canadian Election Study, (12) women and men are now equally likely to have volunteered for, and been members of a political party at some point in their lives. Women and men are equally likely to sign petitions, engage in protest activities, and use the Internet to be politically active. They are also equally likely to have been active in professional, environmental, and ethnic associations. However, women remain less likely to donate to political parties, (13) Women are less likely than men to participate in buycotts--buying products for political, ethical, or environmental reasons--and women remain less likely than men to volunteer for a community group or non-profit organization. Women continue to be less likely than men to be active in unions, and business and sports associations. …

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