In Campaign 2019, the parties did it again, running women as sacrificial lambs and framing issues through men’s eyes. We need to talk about that.
When the ballots were counted, Canadians had elected a mere 10 more women in 2019 than they did in 2015, bringing up the proportion of women in the House of Commons from 26 percent to 29 percent. At this rate, it will take decades for women to reach representational parity.
Where Campaign 2019 highlighted that Canadians aren’t ready for a serious conversation about how race structures our politics, it also showed that diversity would not have been on the agenda at all if not for external events such as the release of Justin Trudeau’s blackface photos or the government litigating against compensation for Indigenous kids in care. While I am heartened, at least somewhat, that Canadians were shocked into talking about race and diversity in 2019, the absence of discussion about gender shows that we’re unlikely to address it either unless we’re forced to.
As someone who studies gender and politics, I look for how gender structures campaigns in at least three ways: through candidates, through leaders and through issues. I also look at voters, of course, but analysis will be easier after the Canadian Election Study — the premier resource that academics use to study Canadians’ political behaviour — has been released. In each of these three areas, gender strongly structured the 2019 campaign in ways we don’t typically discuss.
Let’s look at candidates first. Political scientists have looked really hard for evidence that voters discriminate against women candidates in Canada, and we just can’t find it. This means that while Canadians might still hold some pretty sexist views, that doesn’t keep them from voting for women candidates as readily as they vote for men. Instead, my research with Marc-André Bodet highlights a key factor: political parties. Not only are parties less likely to nominate women as candidates than men, they are also more likely to disproportionately nominate women in seats their party cannot win. Men, by contrast, are more likely to be found running for safe seats. We examined data from 2004 through 2011 and found that this gendered competitiveness pattern persisted for all parties, regardless of how they talk about gender and equality, and that it also persisted for incumbents and open seats. This means that when MPs retire, their parties are still more likely to nominate men over women in those safe seats. It also means that some women MPs have a more precarious hold on their seats than most men.
Journalists from the CBC replicated our study, albeit with a different method, and found that this pattern held in 2019: while all parties nominated more women as candidates this time, all parties were also more likely to nominate women in ridings they were likely to lose. This is why it’s not surprising that the proportion of women in our House of Commons hasn’t meaningfully changed.
Critical readers may ask why this matters. Shouldn’t we be represented by the “best” person for the job? Certainly, and voters can decide who best represents them in their riding on election day. But parties decide how Canadians are represented through their nominations. We know that women’s political engagement increases when they see more women in politics. We know that women are more likely to speak to gender issues than are men, and that this representation transcends their political party. We know questions about women’s competence in politics diminish when more women do politics. And we know that fundamental justice requires that women and other politically marginalized groups be present in our elected institutions in proportions that match their share of the population.
At this point, instead of asking why women should be more included in politics, we should ask why men merit being so overrepresented. After all, in stable democracies that increase women’s presence in politics through a gender quota, such as Sweden, highly qualified women displace mediocre men. While I do not think that elected representatives need to have elite qualifications to be good representatives, I also don’t think that men merit being overrepresented just by virtue of their gender.
I am convinced that both the problem and the solutions to this gender disparity rest with political parties. If parties could nominate equal numbers of women and men, making women disproportionately run as sacrificial lambs would be much more difficult (and more obvious). Several studies show that when women are integrated into powerful positions in local party leadership, their party is more likely to nominate a woman candidate. And women are more likely to run in nomination contests when those contests are called early and left open for longer periods. For me, this suggests that political parties just need to follow their own rules: they all commit to making efforts to look for local candidates, but many simply don’t. Riding associations may just take the first volunteer to step forward, undermining the idea that they want the “best” person to be their candidate. Party leaders could solve this overnight by refusing to sign candidate nomination papers until evidence of local searches is presented.
The story about gender and party leadership is much more straightforward: federal parties, particularly those that stand a chance to form government, simply do not select women as leaders. Evidence from the provinces shows that this practice reflects the harsher standards applied to women leaders. Certainly, some parties select women as leaders when they are in crisis or decline, but it’s more often the case that women become party leaders when their party is uncompetitive. The run-up to the 2019 election was no exception: the assumption appears to be that “normal” party leaders are men. This is simply not the case: research shows that women, as leaders of parties in government, really don’t do politics that differently than do men. Given this, other factors — notably those harsher standards — best explain why parties like the Liberals or the current iteration of the Conservatives have never selected a woman as their leader.
Finally, in the area of issues, a striking feature of this campaign was its narratives about affordability. While the reasons why Canadians care about affordability are diverse, the predominant narrative from the front-running Liberals and Conservatives was that affordability would be addressed primarily through tax cuts and credits. This may not seem gendered on its surface. However, public opinion research shows that men are consistently more likely than women to rank taxes as a higher priority; women, in contrast, are more likely than men to list issues such as health, education or child care. Interestingly, while the Conservatives’ rhetoric was particularly focused on affordability, they did not address big-ticket costs for families such as child care in most of their campaign messaging. This suggests that affordability was addressed primarily through a lens that would be most appealing to men, particularly those men who favour tax cuts as a policy priority. Because women often report different policy goals beyond tax cuts or credits, their preferences or concerns may not have been reflected in how parties discussed some issues.
At the end of the campaign, I hope I can be forgiven for seeing the role gender played as both unchanging and untenable. Nothing is new under the sun when it comes to gender and Canadian politics: women are excluded as candidates, as party leaders, and in issue discourse in much the same way as they have been in the past, even though this pattern could be changed at the drop of a hat. After all, it’s 2019.
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