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Advancement Summit: Women in Politics

Women’s voices are still missing in Canadian Politics: It’s our right—and our responsibility—to be heard.


By Isabel Bassett

Isabel Bassett recently spoke at the Canadian Club after receiving Equal Voice’s EVE award for her support of women in politics. For more information click here.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Equal Voice, an organization established to get more women into Canadian politics. Our goal is gender parity in all three levels of government in Canada, but we have yet to reach 30 % — the magic number when a minority voice starts to be heard.

What has changed in 10 years? The May 2nd federal election saw 407 women candidates run, and 76 elected — we now have 8 more women in Parliament than the last election. But we are still far short of our goal. Even though women are 52% of our population, they are still only 25% of our federally elected officials. This is slightly better than 10 years ago.

As Kim Campbell said when she won the Eve Award a few years ago, “at this rate, we won’t have an equal number of women in Parliament for another 4 generations.”

Why is it so important to have more women politicians?

Equality. Think of it this way. For those of you who share decision-making at home, would you allow your input to count for only 25%? Of course not, because it wouldn’t be fair. Yet that’s what we are allowing by not being adequately represented in Parliament — where policies and laws are created — largely by men — that govern all aspects of our lives.

Secondly, men often have different priorities. Even though all women may not share the same views, studies show they are more likely to sympathize with and support family issues, such as childcare, health, housing and stopping domestic violence.

Studies also show that women have a more collaborative, less confrontational leadership style that benefits an organization. A McKinsey & Company report called Women Matter II shows that companies with more women in senior leadership have a clear, competitive advantage in the marketplace, with happier employees, shareholders, and customers.

A collaborative style is certainly missing from our Parliament. Samara — a charity that studies the health of Canadian democracy — released a report based on exit interviews with MPs. They all called Parliament “dysfunctional” and “more like an unsupervised schoolyard than a forum for public debate.”

Given this, it seems likely that if we had more women politicians, they would restore a little positive balance to the democratic process.

Why aren’t more women running for office?

American professor Jennifer Lawless surveyed several thousand potential political candidates and concluded that women are holding themselves back. Many don’t want to work in a culture of confrontation, don’t want their private lives to be made public, and almost everyone raises the familiar work/life balance conundrum. Not that I blame them — Lawless says women have been socialized to assume responsibility for their families.

Dr. Lawless also found this socialization breeds a lack of confidence and ambition: Compared to men with equal qualifications, women tend to under-estimate their own abilities and shy away from new challenges. Many get to the end of the diving board yet decide not to take the plunge into politics.

Fiona MacFarlane — IWF co-chair and partner at Ernst & Young — described a leadership exercise at work: Employees formed groups to solve a problem, but first had to choose a leader. Even though the groups were diverse, they all choose a white, male leader.

Finally, women don’t see how they can make a “difference” in politics. Increasingly they are gravitating to not-for-profits, smaller firms, or their own businesses — places where they feel they can make a difference, that fit better with personal values, and that have cultures more accommodating of a work/life balance.

The net result is that women are still not represented in government, and our public policy, and functionality of government are lacking because of it.

What can we do?

To answer this, I need to step outside of my comfort zone. I was brought up at a time when women were groomed to be, above all, Nice, and not to make waves. My mother told a story about an important luncheon where a waiter dropped a tray of food on a guest. The women continued talking as if nothing had happened — even as a 2nd waiter slipped in the mess. We were taught that ‘ignoring the obvious’ saves everyone embarrassment. Today, this sort of thing is called ‘The Elephant in the Room.’

Anniversaries like this, however, are the time to reflect, to measure the gap between expectations and performance, and to point out any elephants.

The United Nations has a tidy definition of Equality, which says: “Equality between women and men refers to the equal Rights, Opportunities, and Responsibilities, of women and men.” Today, thanks to all the women — and some enlightened men — who fought for suffrage, we have the rights, and the opportunities. The elephant in the room is responsibility. To demonstrate this, I thank Carolyn Lawrence, CEO of WOI, for emailing me a YouTube video, entitled, “Feminism Explained” — a satirical conversation between two animated characters at an office water cooler:

Woman: “Hi, I’m a feminist.”

Man: “Oh No! … Why?”

Woman: She explains that she wants equal rights for women. To do this, more women need to study math and science, to do difficult jobs, and to enter politics.

Man: “What did you study?”

Woman: “English, because math and science are boring, and I don’t want to hang out with geeks. But other women should…”

We want parity in politics — but we want someone else to actually step forward. Are we spoiled? Have we been socialized to ‘keep our place’? Do we lack the confidence? Do we fail to see how we could make a meaningful difference as a politician?

I asked myself these questions when I stood at the end of the diving board. 20 years ago, The Canadian Club asked me to be President, but I didn’t think I’d fit in with the all male business elite. After a lot of soul searching, I saw this was the opportunity I’d been saying more women should take — so I took the leap. As it turned out, I was able to bring diversity and positive change to the board, and gained the confidence, contacts and knowledge that proved invaluable when I went into politics.

To women who are interested in politics, I urge you to gather your confidence, to see the barriers as opportunities, to take the plunge and make some waves of your own. Remember, you have about 52% of the population behind you, In case that’s not enough, you also have the support of Equal Voice and its many informative programs.

If everyone does their part, and takes advantage of the rights and opportunities we have earned, collectively we can and will fulfill our responsibility of equal representation in government — long before our great grandchildren are born.