Thursday, 17 March 2016

Gender Parity in Canadian Federal, Provincial and Municipal Politics

By Dr. Angelia Wagner
Twitter: @Angelia_Wagner 
Gender parity has yet to be achieved in Canadian legislatures despite decades of activism to address the material, institutional and psychological barriers to political candidacy. Although women comprise half of the country’s population, they make up just a quarter of its elected politicians. Women occupy 26% of the seats in the House of Commons and 27.9% of all provincial legislative spots, ranging from a low of 9.1% in Nunavut to a high of 37.6% in British Columbia. Women are also just 28% of all municipal councillors and 18% of all mayors in the country.

Monitoring the descriptive representation of women according to race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation is more difficult because of the limited data available, but results from the 2015 federal election suggest a gender gap also exists within various social groups. Both Indigenous women and visible minority women, for example, are half as likely as their male counterparts to be MPs in the 42nd Parliament.
In a bid to explain the under-representation of women in politics, research has typically focused on what happens after women become candidates. Studies have examined gender bias in the recruitment practices of political parties, in the news coverage of elite newspapers and television networks, and in the preferences of voters. Scholars have also assessed the influence of institutional structures, regulatory frameworks, and electoral systems on women’s rate of success.

 (See full World Economic Forum, 2015 Global Gender Gap Report linked here.)

While gender continues to shape the campaign environment, one inescapable conclusion to be drawn from the vast literature on gender and politics is that women today are as likely as men to win when they seek elected office. Many women have found, and are continuing to find, a way to address whatever challenges they encounter on the way to becoming a politician.

Resolving the gender parity conundrum therefore requires shifting our focus to what happens before women become candidates. We need to understand why many women who have the necessary qualifications to be legislators are choosing not to get involved in electoral politics. The continuing over-representation of white affluent men in legislatures means we must also be attentive to the role of race, ethnicity, sexuality, and class in the candidate emergence process in Canada. What factors explain the variation in the political participation rates of diverse groups of women and men?

Pathways to—or away from—a career in politics might not be the same for all women or all men. Indigenous and visible minority Canadians, for one, could have very different reasons than white Canadians for opting out of the mainstream political system. A desire to (re)assert their legal, economic, and cultural rights has no doubt led some Indigenous women and men to engage in social movement activism or join Indigenous organizations rather than participate in party politics.

Research examining the political effects of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and class indicates that we need to challenge our assumptions regarding the barriers to, and opportunities for, political candidacy at the federal, provincial, and municipal levels. Fundraising is a challenge for most candidates, but are women disproportionately scared off by it? What role does childcare play in women and even men’s decision to put off their political ambitions? Do women and men’s perceptions of fundraising and childcare vary based on their social identity or personal circumstances?

Contemporary issues such as political polarization and the political dangers of social media have led many individuals to give sober second thought to seeking elected office. These issues also have gendered implications. Women politicians, for example, are often the focus of sexist attacks on social media and, on occasion, death threats. We know little about how negativity on social media, fallout from one’s online history, and pre-emptive party vetting of social media accounts are influencing the decision of some women and men to abstain from electoral politics in the first place.

My postdoctoral research is set to examine the role that women and men’s potentially differing attitudes toward a career in politics play in the candidate emergence process in Canada. It aims to identify the factors that currently depress women and men’s involvement in electoral politics at all three levels of government. Some of these factors will no doubt be ongoing concerns, such as fundraising, while others will be specific to the times in which we live. And each factor might matter more, or less, depending upon whether a person considers a candidacy for municipal, provincial, or federal office.

My project also seeks to uncover potential factors that encourage women and men to become candidates, such as special party funds, candidate schools, mentorships programs, and awareness campaigns. What helps some women and men to overcome their concerns about politics to become candidates for elected office? We need to know what is keeping many qualified women and men from entering politics if we want our legislatures to reflect the diverse backgrounds and life experiences of the general population. Policymaking that responds to complex issues facing Canada in the 21st century demands it.

Dr. Angelia Wagner is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow with the Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship at McGill University in Montréal, Québec. She completed her PhD at the University of Alberta in 2015.

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