“Some Leaders are Born Women”: The Underrepresentation of Women in Canadian Parliament

(By Djina Pavlovic, Queen’s University)


The fact is that the lack of female representatives in Parliament infringes upon our universal understanding of justice.  Didier Ruedin in the European Sociological Review defines justice as “the view that all humans equal worth, and therefore have an equal right to take part in decision making”. Wage gaps between male and female workers in Canada, the pressures of household obligations, the lack of female inclusivity within the elite workforce, and aspects of the electoral system in Canada are all examples that infringe upon the justice of female politicians by creating barriers for women in the political realm.

That leaves us to wonder: what steps can be taken to solve this issue? That fact remains that in order for female politicians to earn respect in the political realm and to acknowledge

important issues that are not currently recognized, Canada must implement various effective

measures in the political system to increase the number of female representatives within

Parliament. Establishing voluntary gender quotas, adopting characteristics of proportional

electoral systems, and modifying the election process by establishing two- member

representatives for each constituency rather than one would increase the percentage of women in

Parliament and overall increase female participation within Canadian politics.

Barriers to Female Leadership

Stephen Brooks from Canadian Democracy explains that social construction of men and

women in the world and the different roles they play in the family contributes to the

underrepresentation of women in public life. The subordination and marginalization of women

within the public realm concludes from psychological factors, status, and professional

achievements in society. This lack of recognition and value for domestic work concludes towards

lower self- esteem and altogether psychologically destroys the motivation of females towards

perusing jobs within the political realm. Not only do the expectations as a female homemaker

diminish motivation; they constrain women’s abilities physically by consistent domestic

routines. Therefore, the division of labour within the household has ultimately reduced

opportunities for females and the experience or professional status they need in order for

employment into parties and political organizations. In sum, when women do enter the public

realm, there is a high percentage that household responsibilities limit their political aspirations

and career goals.

These barriers are important to address because the increase of women in Canadian

Parliament will result towards an increase in opportunities, more support for female citizens, and

more attention given towards women’s issues such as equal pay, childcare provisions,

protections against violence, and abortion. These issues are best suited to be represented by

female politicians themselves. Most importantly, the inequality between men and women in the

political arena infringes upon justice.

Gendered Quotas

Gendered quotas are an effective yet voluntary commitment to increase the number of

female representation by 20 to 30 percent as Ruedin provides in his article. Of the countries that

obtain gendered quotas, 61 percent adopt voluntary quotas, 38 percent have legislated quotas,

and 20 percent have reserved seats says Daniel Stockemer and Maeye Byrne within their article

in Parliamentary Affairs. Evidently, 13 countries had experienced an increase in female

representation within Parliament proving that measures such as quotas do, in fact, quickly

increase the representation of women. In addition, UNICEF provided empirical evidence in

2007, proving that the higher percentage of quotas implemented by countries around the world

corresponded to the higher percentages of women within Parliaments around the world.

Stockemer and Byrne explain that in Canada, female nomination quotas were introduced

in the 1993 and 1997 elections. The Liberal Party attained a 25 percent goal while the NDP

attained a 50 percent goal. In conclusion, each party encountered success – in 1997, 28 percent

of Liberals were female from 22 percent in 1993.The NDP nominated 39 percent females in

1993 and 36 percent in 1997. This success provides evidence that if every party within Canada

were to implement gendered quotas female participation would likely incline within Parliament.

Inequality of Gender Quotas

However, perhaps the percentages these quotas enforce may vary within Canadian parties

resulting towards ineffective outcomes or may be improperly implemented. Therefore,

consistently set quotas within Canada would not only be an effective measure but would

conclude towards a higher percentage of women in Parliament. Additionally, gendered quotas

may even get in the way of real accomplishments for female leaders. Feminist scholars could

argue that such measures could send the wrong message about female candidates, being that

women are in need of their own electoral accommodation in order to compete with men in the

political realm. However, just as proven, gendered quotas allow for a short term increase of

female participation within Parliament and once women are leading the roles in which they

deserve, these quotas could be eliminated.

Modifying the Electoral System

However, the electoral system in Canada not only interferes with the primary goals of

gendered quotas, but ultimately disadvantages female politicians within the country.  According

to Sylvia Bashevkin (2009) in Women, Power, Politics, proportionality is a more effective way

to conduct women’s participation than single- member- plurality (also called “First Past the

Post” or FPTP) systems in Canada. First off, the FPTP electoral system leads towards

nominating high educated middle age senior men. However, list systems such as proportionality

are emphasized more on representation as a party rather than individual representation

concluding that the more females entered to the list, the higher appeal this contribution is to the

party as a whole.

Erin Tolley in the Canadian Journal of Politics Science explains that one of the primary

reasons the electoral system in Canada disadvantages female politicians is due to the fact that

these systems are more candidate- centred. Canada’s FPTP electoral system does not allow more

than one district representative for each riding while countries with proportional electoral

systems accommodate for multi- member representatives which are more likely to produce a

higher rate of women within their Parliament. In the Globe and Mail (2009), Canada’s only

female Prime Minister, Kim Campbell, suggested that expanding the borders of constituencies

and electing two representatives instead of just one would decrease the problem of low female

representation in Canadian politics.

First Past the Post Benefits

According to various political feminists such as Bashevkin in Women, Power, and

Politics, the proportionality system has empirically proved to be more effective regarding the

increase of female politicians within Parliament especially with the implementation of gendered

quotas. Countries with proportional electoral systems can accommodate for two- member

representatives and diminish this problem. Secondly, FPTP electoral systems are less likely to

adopt policies others have incorporated such as gendered quotas. Lastly, FPTP systems do not

accommodate for viewed party lists.[1] In this case, the number of females that contributes to the

success of a party is unknown to the public whereas if the list was public, this would influence

the people’s opinion about females within politicians. Therefore, it is evident even though the

First Past the Post electoral system may result towards benefits; the system creates more barriers

then benefits for female representatives within Canada.


Gendered quotas may not be implemented equally throughout all parties and result in a

skewed representation of female politicians within Canada or perhaps gendered quotas may

seem to get in the way of real accomplishments of female politicians. However, based on

statistics, this method concludes an increase of female representation such as the improvement of

both the New Democrat Party and the Liberal Party within Canadian politics in 1993 and 1997.

Additionally, although Canada’s First Past the Post Electoral system may result towards a faster

turnover rate of representatives, electoral reform would benefit female politicians in various

other ways such as implementing two- member representative constituencies and providing open

party lists to the public as justification for current female participation. In conclusion, the barriers

female politicians have to face within society, politics, and the work force strongly infringes

upon justice and equal opportunity for all citizens to participate in decision making. Without

equal opportunity to participate, our society is based on a democracy of dishonour. Solutions

such as gendered quotas and electoral reform need to be implemented in the political system to

overcome these barriers and most importantly, maintain and regulate justice within Canada.