Gender parity

Let’s talk about gender parity in politics, specifically federal politics, for a bit.

By way of some background, last year, our Prime Minister – in a rehearsed line – said that he was appointing a gender-balanced cabinet “because it’s 2015.”

Leading up to the appointment of cabinet, there was outrage like I’ve not seen in my lifetime (which is only 40 or so years, but whatever) about how ‘qualified’ this cabinet could be if there were going to be so many women. By the bye, the PM had 49 women to choose from in appointing his cabinet, so the idea that none or so few of them could be ‘qualified’ was further baffling.

It’s important to note that whilst there had been women in previous cabinets, they were a significant minority and also that, in the history of Canadian politics, there had been little to no concern about a member’s qualifications.

Cabinet has always been appointed with the aim of making it as representative of the country as possible (save for appropriate gender representation, which had been given little consideration in the past). So, a PM would try to ensure representation based on language, region, and possibly ethnicity, for instance, but not gender. Therefore, if a member of parliament was the only MP for the governing party in an entire province, it was highly likely he would end up with a cabinet post – regardless of his ‘qualifications.’

When the cabinet was appointed, it seemed clear to me that – in addition to it being gender balanced – it might have been the most ‘qualified’ cabinet ever. As just one example, our Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities is Carla Qualtrough, a woman who lives with a visual impairment, was a Paralympic swimmer, and is a highly accomplished professional.

Anyway, enough history. In the article below (click the headline to read), the women in cabinet reflect on their first year as cabinet ministers. There is one line in the article that drives me bananas. See if you can guess what it is…. (you can leave it in the comments and maybe I’ll discuss it in an upcoming post).

Women in gender parity cabinet reflect on first year as ministers

Image from:
Image from:

Fast forward to last week, and you’ll know that an NDP MP brought forward a bill that would financially penalize political parties if their slate of candidates did not include at least 45% women. Read the article here.

To the surprise of my friends and colleagues, I was opposed to this bill (which has since died in the house, with every NDP member voting for it, every Conservative member voting against it, and only 23 Liberal members voting for it).

Let me explain.

In Canada, it is generally understood (and sometimes legislated, depending upon the size of the organization and what sector it serves or to what body it answers) that employers will hire on an ‘equal opportunity’ basis. This means, that – all things being equal in the way of education, skill, etc – it is highly likely that someone from a minority group will be hired over someone who is not from minority group.

For many years, some members of a certain demographic (*cough* white, able-bodied, heterosexual men *cough*) have screamed that this is a quota system, that it’s not fair, and on and on it goes.

But it’s not a quota system. No organization in Canada (of which I’m aware and please correct me if I’m mistaken) is legislated to hire a particular number of women, people of colour, people of a particular religion, people of a particular ability, etc.

The bill that was being proposed by the NDP member, though, was very much a quota system (and that’s only one of it’s problems). In a time when Equal Voice, an agency that’s been working on this issue for years, is aiming for 30% representation of women in politics, an individual member called for 45% representation of women.

The member’s proposed bill sets an actual quota in that there are 308 seats available in parliament, so each party (presuming they are running a candidate in every riding) would have to run 138.6 women (ha! part of a woman to actually achieve the goal) on their slate of candidates. There is no way to get around that being an actual quota.

The bill does nothing to address or, especially, reduce the barriers that prevent women from getting into politics in the first place.

Further, with the financial penalty, the bill made a clear connection between money and women’s bodies. A party could keep all its money if it had the right number of women’s bodies on the slate. There are so many implications in that connection that I won’t get into them here, because this post is already too long. What I will say, though, is that – politics being what it is – it set up the possibility/probability that women who would not have otherwise run would be paid to run, so that the parties would not be penalized.

Do I think that there should be better representation of women in politics? I cannot state strongly enough how much I think there should be.

However, the bill that was being proposed took a far too simplistic (and problematic) approach to achieving that goal.