Women’s political underrepresentation and PR

A much closer look into the political arena reveals a host of non-electoral reasons

Despite achieving gender parity in Trudeau’s cabinet, participation and representation of women in Canadian politics are abysmal. Yet, this issue is not restricted to Canada. Globally, critics cite electoral systems as a primary cause for the political underrepresentation of women.

Upon closer inspection however, the dearth of women in Canadian politics can be attributed to social and institutional, rather than electoral, factors. Specifically, party ideology, the socio-historical Canadian context, and discriminatory policies that impede women’s advancement in politics and cannot be remedied by proportional representation (PR).

In terms of party ideology, parties on the left side of the Canadian political spectrum, such as the Liberals and NDP, tend to elect more women than right-wing parties. This is because right-wing ideology, like that of the Conservatives, is less supportive of women’s political representation. Professor Manon Tremblay at the University of Ottawa cites that as the head of government, the PM chooses cabinet ministers and senators, and so, the PM’s selection process is informed by his or her ideological stance. For example, Tremblay notes that in 1995, due to the ascension of the Conservative Party, the number of women in cabinet ebbed from 40.7 per cent to 21.1 per cent.

Additionally, research by Christine Cheng, lecturer at the University of Oxford, finds that women are incentivized to become political candidates when local party leaders are women. The Conservative Party rarely features women as political leaders. It is not a surprise, then, that in the recent 2017 Conservative Party leadership election, just two of the 14 candidates were women. Thus, if parties are not supporting the election of women in critical roles, a low standard for women’s political participation is implicitly set as a precedence.

Opponents suggest that PR’s nomination lists increase the number and chance of women’s political election. However, in closed-list PR systems, wherein the party leader screens party candidates, the success of these lists, again, depend on the ideological motivation of parties to guarantee that women candidates are even put forward. Right-wing party ideology can dissuade a party leader to nominate women candidates.

Political culture can explain the variation of women’s political representation. As associate professor Frank Thames at Texas Tech University describes that some countries, such as Australia, culturally champion women’s representation. Canada, on the other hand, is still playing catch up due to a historical precedence of women’s political subordination. For instance, female enfranchisement in Québec occurred late, by most standards, in 1940. Following this abysmal precedence, Jane Hilderman, executive director of Samara Canada, points out that it is unsurprising that women were still “novelties” in the Canadian legislature until the mid-1980s. Hence, Canadian women are disadvantaged by historical factors decelerating their political advancement.

But can PR remedy women’s historical underrepresentation in Canada? Not clearly. Despite the implementation of PR systems like the single transferrable vote in Ireland, Leslie Schwindt-Bayer et al. argue that Ireland’s predominant Catholic culture still “reinforce” women’s political subordination. Consequently, women’s representation in Ireland’s lower house hovered at 16 per cent—substantially below the representation of women in majoritarian systems like Canada, which is at 22 per cent.

Moreover, even in countries where PR is employed, socio-historical conditions are still primarily invoked to explain the high representation of women. In Rwanda, women make up 64 per cent of the legislature. The 1994 genocide left Rwanda with an absence of men and destroyed the country’s patriarchal political institutions. Prior to the genocide, women held 15 per cent of parliamentary seats. After the genocide, women made up 70 per cent of Rwanda’s population. Consequently, according to Lisa Doan’s master’s thesis, women were forced to take on political roles to compensate for the lack of men. Thus, a country’s social context, ranging from religion to genocide, rather than its PR system, may be the primary reason for the over or underrepresentation of women.

Discriminatory views held by voters may impede women’s political appointments and the advancement of women’s political issues. In open-list PR systems, wherein voters preferentially rank party candidates, voter bias against women can deter their selection—exemplifying this, again, is the Catholic institution in Ireland. Even if PR list systems can increase the quantity of women in politics, Dr. Grade Lore at the University of British Columbia argues that a decrease in the substantive representation of women may follow. This is because in order to be re-elected in the Canadian political context, women politicians must focus on party agendas which may downplay women’s issues, such is the case with the Conservative Party agenda.

Ultimately, Canadians must focus on remedying non-electoral factors affecting women’s underrepresentation before endorsing PR as the solution.



1 comment

  1. Article fails to mention that quite a few countries have imposed quotas for women on party candidate lists – or, in some cases, the parties themselves imposed such quotas, including sometimes requiring that women be included higher up on the lists – in other words, as nominees for winning seats. Here is a decent international overview of the practices: https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp1314/ElectoralQuotas

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