Women comprise 50 per cent of the population, but only 26 percent of members of Parliament (MPs) in Canada. Is this under-representation the fault of women? Many people think so, and in so doing, fail to capture how our political ethos – that is, the beliefs and ideals that guide our politics – impacts women’s under-representation more than anything to do with the individual.

Take, for example, She Leads. The foundation was launched in June 2018 by Rona Ambrose, former Conservative cabinet minister, and Laureen Harper, wife of former prime minister Stephen Harper, to persuade small-c conservative women to run for office. Women are reluctant to come forward as candidates, Ambrose observed, because they lack self-confidence, struggle to fundraise and often feel ill-equipped to deal with news media interviews or the rough-and-tumble of social media. Men, by contrast, according to Ambrose, “just jump in with both feet.”

At the other end of the political spectrum, Rachel Notley’s NDP government launched Ready for Her ahead of Alberta’s 2017 municipal elections to encourage women to run, offering webinars on how to secure a nomination, launch a campaign, and fundraise.

The common thread between Ready for Her, She Leads and other campaign schools for women is the implication that the root cause of women’s political under-representation is women themselves. In framing the issue and proposing solutions, most of these initiatives imply that there is something “wrong” with women because they are not more ambitious or sufficiently interested in a political career. Since men appear to have little problem becoming candidates, the thinking goes, what “deficiencies” among women must we address to make them act more like men?

This narrative of women’s deficiencies is found in political science research, my own included. Most projects that investigate a gender gap start by observing that men have something that women “lack” and try to explain where women are somehow deficient or responsible for their political under-representation. For example, my own work documents how women in Canada are far more likely than men to say “politics and government are too complicated for a person like me to understand.”

In another, ongoing project my colleagues and I are finding that only two per cent of women and five per cent of men are interested in a career in electoral politics. This means that Canadian women are almost as politically ambitious as men. Yet our political ethos focuses on that ambition gap instead of asking why so few Canadians want a political career. It also focuses on the idea that the core problem with women’s under-representation rests with women rather than with something more fundamental to the political system.

Given this, it’s no surprise that headlines declare how women, especially in Canada, are more ignorant of politics and current affairs than are men, or that groups across the ideological spectrum act as though the solution is to boost women’s confidence and skills so they are able to compete head-to-head with the men.

If women are to blame for their under-representation in Canadian politics, we should be able to solve it by personally training every woman how to campaign or by telling each woman to be more confident. But the reality is that we can’t. Take the gender gap in that question “politics is too complicated.” The results are remarkably stable over time in Canada (and elsewhere) despite massive increases in the numbers of women with a post-secondary degree, a high income or a powerful job. Of course, these resources matter for women in politics. But they don’t explain why women lack confidence in their political abilities or don’t want to run for office.

It could help to expand our definition of “political knowledge.” Women perform poorly compared with men only when political knowledge tests are based on questions about “who’s who” in politics. However, in tests that measure practical aspects of political knowledge – what forms are required for certain tax credits, who to contact about suspected child abuse, where Canadian peacekeepers are posted – women know as much if not more than men. Given this, I argue that women can’t be easily dismissed as politically “ignorant.” Instead, it might be that women don’t see themselves in some parts of politics and rationally conclude that politics isn’t for them. Therefore, rather than looking at women’s deficiencies, we need to start looking at the system and its ethos instead.

Ethos – that set of values and beliefs that guide our politics – is key to explaining why women remain so under-represented in Canadian politics. My research using Swedish data confirms how raising levels of women’s representation can engage them with politics. Swedish political parties in 1974 implemented a voluntary gender quota to ensure they elected more women. Over time, the proportion of women in Sweden’s national legislature, the Riksdag, rose from about 20 per cent in the 1970s to over 45 per cent today. What’s most interesting is that as more women were elected, it sparked greater interest among other women in politics. Sweden differed from Canada in that it took action to get women on par with men in their political institutions. Here, where only 26 per cent of MPs are women, the number is still too small to spark the same increased interest in politics among women.

This shows how ethos matters: If women observe how politics remains closed to them, no amount of resources or individual interventions will make them want to participate more in politics. A more effective route is to transform what our politics look like. The Swedish example shows this can be done by changing the collective belief: Women belong in politics.

If we are serious about changing our political ethos, it’s reasonable to demand that parties nominate as many women as men: Each federal party simply needs to find 169 women – half of the 338 seats in the House of Commons – willing to run. This can’t be too difficult: If only one percent of Canada’s 17 million women have political ambitions, potential female candidates still number in the tens of thousands. This approach must extend further to ensuring they are in real positions of power. No women-led party has been competitive for government in federal elections in decades. No women have been elected twice to serve as provincial premier. No woman has ever served as federal finance minister. No wonder women are less enthusiastic about politics than are men; you can’t be what you can’t see.

Unfortunately, there are people who don’t want the system to change, and it takes guts to stand firm in the face of opponents. When premiers and prime ministers appoint equal numbers of women and men to cabinet, some people cry foul on the grounds that the women don’t “merit” their positions – an argument many of us don’t find persuasive. Research shows that when quotas are meaningfully implemented, merit – measured in politicians’ credentials – goes up. This is because in established democracies, quotas typically bring in very highly qualified women, displacing mediocre men. It’s clear that women are qualified for politics.

While I don’t want to diminish how difficult it can be for parties to recruit diverse candidates, the issue is more about parties deciding whether diversity is a priority. They must explicitly choose whether to put in time or effort to recruit women candidates. My work shows this is a problem across the partisan spectrum. One soon-to-be-published study demonstrates that parties that successfully nominate more women do two things: First, they take time to recruit diverse candidates rather than rushing through the nomination process. Second, they bring women into leadership in their local electoral district associations. When women are presidents of these associations, they are more likely to nominate women candidates. Parties that fail to do this restrict voters’ choices to candidates who tend to be older, white men.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

In 2018, all parties in Quebec committed to nominate enough women to reach the parity zone of between 40 to 60 per cent women candidates. All parties achieved this, and the Quebec National Assembly is now 41 per cent  women.

While some party leaders are on record as saying that consciously making space for women candidates in their parties is a “condescending approach,” this is exactly the work needed. Recent elections across the country, as well as my own work on the Conservative Party of Canada, shows that when party leaders decide they want their party to nominate more women, it happens. More condescending than inclusion is suggesting the backgrounds and experiences women and diverse candidates bring as elected representatives aren’t worthy of aggressively recruitment.

Here’s where the news media can play an important role in informing voters of how committed party leaders are to diversity, by reporting on the number of women each party nominates, as well as how quickly the nomination process moves. Certainly, some voters don’t care about diversity and it won’t affect their choice. But given that groups such as women remain so consistently under-represented in politics, voters who do care about women’s representation must be able to hold parties and their leaders to account.

This article is part of the Changing the way we talk about women in politics special feature.

Photo: Shutterstock by WorldStock

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Melanee Thomas
Melanee Thomas is an associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary. Her research focuses on the causes and consequences of gender-based political inequality in Canada and other postindustrial democracies.

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