Women's Descriptive Representation in Canadian Politics: Impacts of Electoral Reform.

AuthorJohnson, Mark

Despite significant advances in recent decades, women in Canada continue to be underrepresented in Canada's House of Commons. Many reasons have been discussed for this gap, not the least of which is the impact of the Single Member Plurality (SMP) electoral system. Indeed, the effects of the electoral system reverberate through the candidate aspiration, nomination, and election phases. Using evidence from the Alternative Vote (AV) electoral system of Australia and the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system of New Zealand, Canada's electoral system will be critically evaluated from the perspective of women's descriptive representation. The evidence suggests that, while adopting Australia's AV system could be expected to have a minimal impact at best, should Canada switch to MMP, while no panacea for women's underrepresentation, we would likely see a higher proportion of women elected to the House of Commons compared to results currently seen under SMP.


Despite significant advances in recent decades, women in Canada continue to be underrepresented in Canada's House of Commons. Numerous studies have identified explanations for the mismatch between women's proportion of the population and their representation in Canada's House of Commons, such as persisting gender norms and biases, a masculinized political environment, lower financial and networking resources for women, and the weakness of the political left in Canada. As well, Canada's current electoral system--Single Member Plurality (SMP) (also known as "first past the post")--has been associated with women's underrepresentation.

Following the federal election of 2021, Canada's House of Commons boasted the highest proportion of women in the country's history, with 30 per cent of the 338 total Members of Parliament (MPs) identifying as women. However, Canada is still behind many other countries, currently occupying 58th place (November 2021 data) in the world for women as a percentage of the national legislature, according to the Interparliamentary Union--down from 16th place in 1997. Could electoral reform in Canada be expected to compensate for the barriers to seeing more women in politics, most notably insufficient recruitment efforts by political parties, incivility and the lack of cooperation on the campaign trail and in Parliament, and the various socioeconomic and psychological realities? These are the key factors to consider that affect women's likelihood of aspiring to enter politics, getting nominated by a political party, and being elected, and can, to a great extent, be linked to the electoral system.

Coming out of the Fourth United Nations World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, a Platform for Action recommended that governments "take measures to ensure women's equal access to and full participation in power structures and decision-making." The Platform specifically called on governments to review the impact of their electoral systems on women's representation and undertake necessary reforms. For decades, research has found higher proportions of women elected under proportional representation (PR) electoral systems. (1) While not the only factor impacting the representation of women, the electoral system is certainly an important one.

University of Calgary political science professor Melanee Thomas has pointed out that women are likely to see an increase in the numbers of women elected as a sign that they have a role to play in decision-making political institutions, thereby making the institution's decisions more legitimate. (2) While there may be general agreement that the underrepresentation of women in Canadian politics is a problem, there is less consensus on preferred solutions. Potential ideas include formal gender quotas, reserved seats, financial incentives, and of course, electoral system reform. This article--which is an abridged version of a much longer research paper --considers whether the adoption of the Alternative Vote (AV) electoral system (used in Australia) or the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system (used in New Zealand) could be expected to positively impact the number of women being elected in Canadian federal politics.

Approach and Methodology

This article focuses on descriptive (or "mirror") representation, that is, what proportion of the House of Commons consists of individuals identifying as women. (3) Descriptive representation is distinct from substantive representation, which refers to the degree to which women's interests are promoted in the legislature. This article, therefore, relates to women's presence in the House of Commons, not their actions or policy priorities.

I chose to focus on the electoral systems of Australia and New Zealand as potential alternatives because these countries are democracies with similar origins--coming out of the British Empire--and have comparable religious, cultural, and racial contexts, relatively speaking. They also have experience using the SMP electoral system, though they both switched to different systems; Australia's Lower House to AV in 1918 and New Zealand to MMP in 1996. Thus, their experiences could be considered reasonably comparable to the Canadian context.

The AV and MMP electoral systems also have been discussed extensively in terms of applicability to Canada. For instance, MMP has been considered in electoral reform referenda in Ontario and Prince Edward Island, and MMP was part of the election platform of Quebec's current government. MMP was also recommended for adoption federally in Canada by the Law Commission of Canada in 2004 and the 1979 Task Force on Canadian Unity. The House of Commons also voted on MMP in 2014, and in 2016, the Special Committee on Electoral Reform reported that MMP was the system supported by the majority of the thousands of Canadians who engaged with the committee in favour of reform. (4)

AV, while never put to a referendum in Canada, has nevertheless been a subject of much discussion, as it is considered the preferred system of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and the previous Liberal Party of Ontario leader pledged to implement it in Ontario. AV was also adopted (for a time) in recent years by several cities in Ontario, has been used in the past by certain provinces, and is the system that some of Canada's major political parties use to select their leaders. As such, AV is a concept that would likely be palatable to Canadians, especially given its single-member districts and other similarities with SMP.

This research paper considers whether a new electoral system for Canada could:

* Compensate for the socioeconomic and psychological barriers that hinder women's participation in Canadian politics;

* Lead to more proactive and sustained efforts on the part of the Canadian political parties to recruit and nominate women; and

* Lead to more civility and cooperation in the Canadian federal political sphere.

Literature Review

Women in Canada won the right to vote in 1918, and the first woman (Agnes Macphail) was elected federally in 1921, but by 1979--almost 60 years later --women still represented just 3.6 per cent of the House of Commons. There were subsequent gradual increases, with women's representation passing 20 per cent in 1997, and then hitting 30 per cent in 2021. However, women remain far from achieving parity, and this mismatch raises questions about democratic legitimacy.

Increasing the number of women elected in Canada is more complicated than it might seem. Research has shown that Canadians are just as likely to vote for women as they are for men and potential female politicians often have stronger qualifications. (5) The main obstacles are encountered long before Election Day. In fact, even before the nomination stage. Canada remains a patriarchal society, with women often bearing a disproportionate share of family and home responsibilities. Women, in general, are disadvantaged in terms of the professional connections, social capital, and self-confidence that spur people to seek electoral nominations. (6) As well, women tend to express less interest in joining the political world, they are less likely than men to be recruited by parties, and they are also less likely to respond positively to parties' recruitment efforts. (7) As observed by former Canadian Minister for the Status of Women Maryam Monsef, "If you know a woman who would make a terrific representative for your community or municipality, ask her to run. And then ask her 14 more times, because that's how long it could take to convince her she has what is needed." (8)

It is important to recognize...

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