Toronto Star: We can fix gender inequality in Parliament

Next week Parliament begins debating Bill C-237, the Candidate Gender Equity Act. My private member’s bill seeks to change our electoral laws and incentivize political parties to run more women candidates during elections. With Canada ranked 60th in the world when it comes to electing women MPs, it is clear we are not doing enough to address gender equity in our most important democratic institution.

On the surface, Canadian federal politics have recently become a shining example of gender equity. Prime Minister Trudeau proudly calls himself a feminist and has gained international acclaim for appointing the country’s first gender-balanced cabinet.

But dig a little deeper and it’s clear that we still have huge problems. Even in 2016, only 26 per cent of our MPs are women. Very few or no women sit on most standing committees. More and more women politicians – most recently Conservative MP Michelle Rempel – are speaking out about the pervasive and poisonous culture of sexism in Ottawa.

The politics of presence matters. The more gender-balanced our national legislature becomes, the more gender-balanced our policy decisions will become. It is about time women held their fair share of seats in the House of Commons and I suspect most Canadians would want to see us move past countries such El Salvador (ranked 35th in the world), Tunisia (40th), Sudan (45th), Iraq (56th) or Kazakhstan (58th).

Don’t blame voters for the lack of women in our Parliament. Academic research shows women are as likely as men to win elections. Some scholars demonstrate voters often even slightly prefer women candidates.

Don’t blame women. Parties have thousands of women members, volunteers, and activists and all three major parties had women campaign managers in the 2015 election. It is ridiculous to suggest each party cannot find a mere 169 qualified women to fill half of their 338 candidacies out of these giant pools of potential candidates.

Instead, blame the parties. These now elite clubs, of which less than 2 per cent of the population belong, control most aspects of our formal political life, including who gets to run in elections. Academic research, including articles published by my wife Dr. Jeanette Ashe and me, shows the processes by which parties select candidates are overwhelmingly biased against women simply because they are women. Men can be up to five times more likely than women to win candidate nomination contests when all other factors are held constant.

The Candidate Gender Equity Act seeks to address the gender bias of party selectors by prompting parties to take action. It links the existing public subsidy parties receive when reimbursed for their campaign expenses to the extent their candidate lists are gender-balanced. The further a party strays from running 50 per cent women candidates, the less post-election public subsidy it receives.

This proposal hasn’t been pulled out thin air. Other countries, such as Ireland and France, use incentive-based measures with great success. After just one election with a similar law, Ireland saw a 90 per cent increase in the number of women candidates nominated and a 40 per cent increase in the number of women elected. The proven success of these types of laws is why top Canadian political scientists and feminist scholars back my bill.

Don’t worry about the government interfering in party business. Parties will have ample time to up their game before the 2019 election and the bill in no way prescribes how parties should recruit more women. It leaves parties total freedom to run their internal nominations and choose which new measures best suit their organization.

Ultimately, the decision to move toward greater gender parity in Parliament comes down to the current 338 MPs. If Prime Minister Trudeau and his government choose not to pass my bill, Canada is unlikely to achieve gender parity until 2075. That would be a shame as so many other countries have enacted laws to address this critical issue.

We’ve heard a lot of gender equity talk since the 2015 election, now MPs have the opportunity to walk the walk by supporting Bill C-237. The world is watching.

For more information about Bill C-237, please visit:

Kennedy Stewart is the Member of Parliament for Burnaby South and an Associate Professor on-leave from Simon Fraser University’s School of Public Policy.

Toronto Star: We can fix gender inequality in Parliament
Toronto Star: We can fix gender inequality in Parliament
Sign the petition: Gender Equity Petition