Beyond cabinet parity: Gender equity requires less talk, more legislation

Photo: flickr/Day Donaldson

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Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne unveiled a midterm cabinet shuffle last month that boosted the percentage of women in her executive council to 40 per cent, the highest in Ontario's history.

While Wynne had conceded she would not be able to match Trudeau's gender-balanced cabinet, the shuffle speaks to the political currency of Trudeau's "because it's 2015" feminism.

But not everyone is still celebrating. In February, New Democrat MP Kennedy Stewart introduced a private member's bill, the candidate gender equity act, to take aim at the lingering parliamentary gender gap by penalizing parties that do not put forth gender-balanced candidate lists.

"Without new measures like Bill C-237, we're unlikely to achieve equality until 2075 -- another 60 years," Stewart told rabble in an email.

While Bill C-237 has garnered all-party support, the Liberals, despite their gender-sensitive platform, are not supportive of the bill. A leaked memo in May revealed that Maryam Monsef, minister of democratic institutions, opposes Bill C-237. She has since argued that the bill is not "the best way forward."

However, according to Stewart, the Liberals' embrace of cabinet parity is largely symbolic. "All feminists, including the prime minister apparently, know efforts to achieve women's equality only move backward when political leaders wrap themselves in the symbols of feminism, but then fail to use their power to make real change and put new laws in place," Stewart told rabble.

Cabinet parity masks parliamentary gender gap

Nancy Peckford, Executive Director of Equal Voice, told rabble in a telephone interview that while Trudeau's embrace of cabinet parity marked a "watershed moment" from a political culture perspective, cabinet parity won't do much to close the parliamentary gender gap.

"[Cabinet parity] is a very positive move in the right direction, it signals to everyone in the governing caucus that the perspectives of women are to be taken seriously," said Peckford.

But political culture isn't everything. "While there's parity around the table, [women] are still a minority in the governing caucus," Peckford explained.

The 2015 federal election saw a mere 1 point increase in the percentage of female MPs in the House of Commons, bringing the number up to 26 per cent. That means just one out of every four MPs is a woman.

Twenty-six per cent puts Canada lagging at 61st in a recent international ranking of women in parliaments. The percentage is also still shy of what the UN deems the 30 per cent critical mass of women needed to make "a visible impact on the style and content of political decision-making."

In other words, 26 per cent is too low.

In the last election, the NDP came the closest to candidate gender parity: women made up 43 per cent of the party's candidates. In second place were the Liberals, with 31 per cent women candidates.

Despite the NDP's overall losses in the 2015 election, the party maintained its lead: 40 per cent of the elected NDP MPs are women.

These results point to a simple equation: more women running means more women elected.

Political parties held financially responsible

Elizabeth May told rabble in a telephone interview in June that one way to close the parliamentary gender gap is to implement legislation mandating parties put forth gender-balanced candidate lists. 

She explained how these measures differ depending on the electoral system, but the underlying idea is that if Canada is to close the gender gap in the House of Commons, political parties must be held responsible. May has endorsed Stewart's bill.

How can Canadians elect a gender-balanced House of Commons if parties aren't putting forth enough women candidates in the first place? 

"After all, it's 2016," said Stewart in February as he introduced Bill C-237 to the House of Commons.

Under Stewart's Bill C-237, parties who fail to put forward candidate lists with less than 10 per cent difference between the number of male and female candidates would receive reduced federal reimbursement for election expenses.

A recent CTV article uses the 2015 slates and 2011 election expenses to calculate that the Conservatives would lose the most at $1.2 million, the Liberals would lose about $682,000, and the NDP about $102,000.

Similar laws in Ireland saw 40 per cent more women elected to the legislature in this year's national election.

"There have been similar results in France, and this has been very successful in other countries," Stewart told CTV News.

Women get elected, if they can run first

At a reading of Bill C-237 on May 10, Stewart noted that there are two steps to becoming an MP, the first of which is selection by an official political party, the second of which is winning a seat.

"More and more academic research shows voters are not biased against women candidates. When women run, they are just as likely to be elected as men," Stewart told MPs. By Stewart's logic, gender parity requires Canada address the obstacles women face in the first, not so much the second, step to becoming an MP.

But the bill is not likely to change much about the way parties select candidates. Private member's bills rarely become law, because they do not have a governing party's automatic support, like government bills do.

Moreover, Stewart told rabble in an email that despite the Liberals' emphasis on gender-based reform, the Liberals have "sided with the Conservatives" and come out against Bill C-237.

"It took a leaked memo from the minister of democratic institutions' [Maryam Monsef] own office for the Liberal government to admit [the Liberals] are planning to oppose gender equity in Parliament," Stewart wrote.

The second and final hour of debate on Bill C-237 will take place this fall. In the meantime, we can expect a lot more talk about gender equality, but perhaps, not so much action.

 

Comment below on the discussion of gender parity:

  • Do you think Bill C-237 is the best way to address gender parity in Parliament?
  • Are the Liberals more talk, less action in their feminist identity?

 

Sophia Reuss is a Montreal-based writer, editor, and is a recent graduate of McGill University. She's interested in how online media and journalism facilitate public accessibility and conversation. Sophia also writes and edits for the Alternatives International Journal. She is rabble's current news intern.

Photo: flickr/Day Donaldson

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