Political parties and media can play a key role in increasing women’s political representation

It is time that political parties stepped to the plate to advance women’s representation in political offices across this country. Although barriers have been broken, we have a long way to go to achieve equitable representation. Two provincial premiers are women-down from six – and women constitute 25 per cent of MPs in Parliament and range from 10 per cent to 36 per cent in provincial legislatures.  Municipal councillors are 26 per cent women and mayors only 16 per cent.  All three of the major federal parties have women leading the campaigns for the upcoming election. Three female campaign leaders is a historical first and does speak to some progress. While the current representation of women in Parliament is the highest ever, a closer look shows that the majority of women are NDP MPs. The lowest numbers of women MPs are from the Conservative party.

Women make up more than 50 per cent of our population in all of their diversity. Without equitable representation in our institutions of democracy, we are missing key perspectives in shaping public policy and legislative choices for our country. Women bring different concerns and interests to the legislative and municipal decision-making tables and should be present in larger numbers at all of them.

How can we change the current situation? All parties can increase representation of women seeking office. In particular, the Liberals and Conservatives, who lag behind the NDP in choosing women to represent their parties in the ridings, can focus on attracting leading female candidates to ensure an equitable representation is achieved. For the 2015 election, parties should be consciously and actively seeking more women to run for office. Provincial parties can also act accordingly.

Women should be asked to run in winnable ridings, thereby increasing the likelihood of higher women’s representation. Often women need to be asked to run for office and if parties, through directions to their riding associations, do not ask or seek out qualified women, they may find themselves without adequate numbers of women candidates. Placing women in “unwinnable” ridings will not help advance representation.

Women look at the political sphere and wonder if it is really worthwhile putting themselves through the challenges of seeking a nomination, an election campaign and media scrutiny. Fortunately, we do have strong women in political office who can serve as role models for how women lead in the political arena. While four of our six female premiers are no longer in their office, we can applaud the breakthrough and understand their departures were all for different reasons. Women will have successes and failures the same as men, and we cannot expect women to be “miracle workers” any more than we expect it of our current male politicians.

Key is media awareness. Media plays an important role in reporting on candidates for an election. Women are often judged more harshly when their choices or decisions are different than expectations that are premised upon unconscious stereotypes about how “women should behave.” In campaigns women are asked by the media about their families or comments are made about their appearance or emotions. Witness the “wheels on the bus” reporting on the campaign painting on Alberta Wildrose leader Danielle Smith’s bus in Alberta and questions lobbed to PC MPP Lisa Macleod regarding how she would manage her dual role in the legislature, when she had a baby. Media do not ask men these questions nor should they ask women. When a woman or man chooses to run they have already planned how they will manage other aspects of their lives. Premier Christy Clark, in British Columbia, was crystal clear when asked how she would balance her political and family roles, stating: “We’ve had this conversation. And we can handle it.”

We have both federal and provincial elections this year. The time is now to focus on changing the political landscape and making Canada a leader in advancing women. We can, and should, have expectations that our political parties will take action.

Clare Beckton is the founding executive director of the Centre for Women in Politics and Public Leadership at Carleton University.


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