Barriers to women's political participation in Canada.

Author:Thomas, Melanee


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.

Finally, women are less likely to be interested in politics or confident in their political abilities. (14) They are also less likely to be knowledgeable about some aspects of political affairs. (15)


Women's lower levels of political participation are problematic for three reasons. First, women are a historically underrepresented group. In the past, they were formally barred from participating in politics and democracy. Even though these formal restrictions have been removed, informal barriers continue to act to hamper women's political participation. In the face of these barriers, Canada's representative institutions cannot function in a just, fair, and democratic manner. Second, women are a heterogeneous group with a diversity of political opinions and preferences. (16) Representing this diversity is difficult, if not impossible, with a small number of representatives and activists. This task would be more realistically achieved if women are as active in politics as justified by proportionality and their demographic weight. (17) Third, research shows that in the legislature and the laboratory alike, women's and men's decision-making behaviour changes with the gender composition of that group. (18) Specifically, men paired with women are more likely to choose outcomes that closely match their preferences than are teams made up exclusively of men, (19) and women are more likely than men to "prioritize the protection of the vulnerable and support government intervention on 'compassion' issues." (20) This suggests that women's lower levels of political participation lead to outcomes that are less desirable for society as a whole.

These trends--or, rather, the stability of women's lower levels of political participation--suggest that that considerable barriers to women's political participation persist in Canada. These barriers exist at the individual, community/social, and political levels; specific barriers at each level will be discussed in turn.

Individual-Level Barriers to Women's Political Participation

A number of individual-level barriers contribute to women's lower levels of political participation. The most important barriers at this level today in Canada are psychological. One socioeconomic factor--income--continues to be an important individual-level barrier.

Historically, socioeconomic factors were highlighted in the literature as the most important. The earliest studies of political behaviour argued that as women's levels of education, income, and occupational status caught up to men's, so too should their levels of political participation and engagement. (21) Canadian women's levels of education now rival and even exceed men's. (22) Though women's median income is about two-thirds of men's, women's wages grew faster than men's since the late 1980s, and women have been steadily moving into higher status occupations over time. (23) These factors are not immaterial to political participation: education and household income are both strong predictors of participation in Canada. (24)

If women's lower levels of political participation could be explained by these socioeconomic factors, then gender gaps in political participation should have narrowed, if not closed over time. This has not been the case. (25) Though women's lower levels of earned income remain a barrier to their political participation, women's other socioeconomic gains--notably, their great strides in educational attainment--should have powerful effects on closing gender gaps in political participation. This may be due, in part, to the fact that women remain underrepresented in the upper echelons of many professions, despite their education gains overall. Still, because women's political underrepresentation persists, other barriers must also be at work.

Income acts as an individual-level barrier through campaign finance regulation (or lack thereof). Electoral contests remain unregulated in some municipal and provincial jurisdictions. This lack of regulation requires potential candidates for office to rely on conventional sources of campaign finance, including personal income. (26) This individual-level barrier can be mitigated through campaign finance regulation, as noted below in the "political barriers" section below.

In the absence of systematic socioeconomic barriers, psychological barriers become more important for women's political participation. Women are less likely than men to be interested in or knowledgeable about politics. (27) Women are also less likely than men to be confident in their political abilities. (28) Research from the United States shows that women's lower levels of political self-confidence translates directly into a gender gap in political ambition. This suppresses women's desire to run for political office at all levels of government. (29) Importantly, levels of socioeconomic resources and family responsibilities do not directly explain why women report lower levels of psychological orientations to politics than do men. (30) This suggests that leadership programs that target the development of political interest and political self-confidence may help some women overcome an individual-level barrier to political participation.

Though women's marital and parental status do not have statistically significant direct effects on their likelihood of considering a candidacy, or on their...

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