By Nancy Peckford
and Raylene Lang-Dion
The recent American presidential election between the Democratic Party’s Hillary Clinton and the Republican Party’s Donald Trump is a pernicious example of the yet-to-be-broken “glass ceiling” for women in the political life of the United States. However, it is only with deep political analysis and thorough academic discourse — as well as several formal investigations into the extent and impact of Russian meddling in the election — that we will truly understand what happened in this historic election where most pollsters were confident that the U.S. would elect its first female president.
Instead, Donald Trump, not Hillary Clinton, succeeded President Barack Obama.
We are now faced with the daunting question of what this means for women in politics in the U.S., Canada and beyond. Currently, Canada ranks 63rd on the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s classification of women elected globally, which is an all-time low — with Rwanda, Bolivia and Cuba electing the largest numbers of women to their respective legislatures. In Canada, on average, women comprise 25 per cent of those who are elected to political office.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, the statistics tell the same tale. For example, in the St. John’s city council elected prior to the current one, there was only one female municipal councillor out of a total of 11. Strides were made in September’s election, when five women were elected to council.
Ten women MHAs sit in the provincial legislature out of a total of 40, and three of the province’s seven federal members of Parliament were women until Judy Foote stepped down. Her successor has not yet been elected.
In Canada, on average, women comprise 25 per cent of those who are elected to political office.
Fundamental issues, including various systemic barriers, are numerous. However, for the purposes of this essay, our focus is on Equal Voice’s initiative “livable legislatures,” which seeks to shift the structural and cultural norms within politics so that the electoral arena is not only accessible for women, but a forum where they can thrive. Equal Voice is Canada’s only national, not-for-profit, multi-partisan, bilingual organization dedicated to promoting the election of more women to political office, addressing the barriers for women, and contributing to an improved discourse about women who seek to be elected and serve.
Given that a royal commission nearly a half-century ago explored women’s political participation and public life, and that countless papers, seminars and conferences have addressed the subject, the time has come for the implementation of pragmatic solutions that borrow from innovations widely adopted by the public and corporate sectors. They include: the better use of technology for conducting business and meetings; sharing the workload by investing resources to cultivate a robust team to support the work of the legislator; and allowing for flexibility at critical periods of caregiving, such as after the birth/adoption of a child or, on the other end of the spectrum, the death of a loved one.
Reviewing what has been proposed federally can provide some options for local legislative reforms in a practical, economical, and politically savvy manner.
While none of these proposed reforms have been fully embraced in Canada’s Parliament, they are being actively reviewed by a House of Commons committee, and House leaders are seeking to make federal political life more sustainable. Further, Equal Voice has called on decision-makers to ensure that the review of Canada’s current electoral system fully recognizes the gendered effects of not only the first-past-the-post system, but also the cultural and political context in which individuals seek nomination within a political party. Its submission to the Special Committee was authored by Dr. Grace Lore, Equal Voice’s senior researcher, who conducted a comprehensive survey of gender and electoral systems in Europe and North America while at the University of British Columbia. She recommended: the evaluation of potential changes to the federal nomination process — not just the voting system — that might then be implemented; an ongoing review of retention issues and political culture to increase the representation of women in Canada; and consideration of the reasons for the relatively low numbers of women elected and what women can do to address issues that disproportionately affect them.
Structural changes can be implemented in myriad ways while taking into consideration a government’s fiscal realities, the election cycle, the potential change of political representation and priorities, and the public’s appetite for such structural changes. Nonetheless, despite these considerations, a strong movement exists for the election of more women in Canada and abroad, originating from a wide range of political influences inside and outside of the political process.
By working together across political party lines, raising awareness of the importance of women having a voice at the political decision-making table, and through innovative and courageous ideas, the glass ceiling will be shattered once and for all.
About the Authors
Nancy Peckford (Equal Voice Canada) is the executive director of Equal Voice, a national multi-partisan organization dedicated to the election of more women to all levels of government in Canada. Nancy has worked with a variety of groups on issues critical to women’s economic security, including the St. John’s Women’s Centre. Nancy remains very connected to her roots in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Raylene Lang-Dion (Equal Voice Ottawa) is past national chair of Equal Voice. She has worked in politics for over 15 years at the federal and provincial levels, including for two cabinet ministers and in two legislatures. She holds a master’s degree in political science, and completed her thesis on the topic of women and politics in her native Newfoundland and Labrador.