In the United States Hillary Clintons presidential campaign is cause for
hope and reflection on the status of womens leadership in world politics.
The prospect of a woman occupying the oval office represents an exciting
turning point in history that is in need of further attention, particularly
as it affects current Canadian political discourse. This article looks
at recent developments in some other countries and considers the prospects
for more women in Canadas Parliament following the next election.
Women have rarely held positions of political leadership. In 2006, only
11 or 5.7 percent of the worlds 191 nations were lead by women. 1
patterns of inequity can be observed in the worlds national parliaments.
Only three nations come close to boasting gender balance; Rwanda ranks
first in the world with 48.8 percent female legislators, Sweden has 47.3
percent women parliamentarians, and Finland ranks third with 42 percent
While Hillary Clintons campaign is exciting for many women, it also serves
as a reminder of the challenges women encounter when seeking elected office.
Despite the small gains women may have made in politics over the past two
decades, political leadership remains defined on masculine terms. Political
Scientists Linda Trimble and Jane Arscott note there is a persistent observation
that women leaders just do not fit, and women politicians are repeatedly
evaluated by their looks, clothing, relationships, and the tone of their
voices anything but their political skills and acumen.2
Hillary Clinton is no exception. Recently, a Fox news commentator proclaimed
Hillary Clinton was losing the male vote because of her nagging tone of
voice stating, When Barack Obama speaks, men hear, Take off for the future.
And when Hillary Clinton speaks, men hear, Take out the garbage. In
Canada, a Globe and Mail article criticized Clintons dumpy pantsuit
advising the presidential candidate that she her bee-hind looks like a
tree-ruck in those boxy, double-breasted nightmare pantsuits.3
Female politicians in Canada are not exempt from similar treatment. While
at a conference, a female cabinet minister from Ontario was introduced
by a male cabinet colleague with the statement, Shes got better legs,
what can I say?4 The Ottawa Citizen recently reported that a female Member
of Parliament looked stunning in a black gown with a plunging neckline,5while
failing to mention the attire or appearance of other politicians in attendance.
Media reports occasionally discuss the appearances of male politicians,
yet the greater frequency of this type of coverage on female politicians
has been well documented. Joanna Everitt, who studies media and gender
in Canada, notes male leaders have fewer sex-typed images applied to them.6
Given politics is still a male dominated field; it is not surprising that
newsrooms covering politics are generally, male dominated as well. Everitt
says political reporting generally, employs a masculine narrative that
reinforces conceptions of politics as a male preserve and treats male as
reinforcing the image that politics is something that men do.
The sentiment that politics is something men do still exists. A study
conducted by Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox, uncovered a significant
gender gap in how women perceive themselves as potential candidates for
office. Even when men and women possessed similar qualifications, women
were more than twice as likely as men to believe they were not qualified
to run for office.7 Christy Clark, British Columbias former Deputy Premier
observed this gender gap first hand. Ms. Clark who was responsible for
candidate recruitment said, Ask a woman to run for office and shell say,
Why are you asking me? Ask a man, and hell say, I cant believe it
took you so long to ask.8
Lawless and Fox suggest political actors are less likely to see women as
Women occupying the same professional spheres as men
were only half as likely as men to receive encouragement to run for office
from political parties. The gender gap was also evident in the different
levels of information men and women possessed on how to launch a campaign
and raise money.
Kim Campbell, Canadas first and only female Prime Minister, suggests perceptions
of leadership can change when women occupy high profile leadership positions,
In other words, if women are never in certain roles, then we think its
almost unnatural for them to be in those roles. Thats why in most cultures
leadership is gendered masculine. And the only way to change that is when
people, particularly enlightened male leaders, use their positions to put
women in these portfolios and give them these opportunities...10
Societal definitions of leadership are only one piece of the gender gap
puzzle. Studies have shown other factors influence womens political opportunities
including: electoral systems, parliamentary systems, political culture,
political party nomination processes, societal divisions of domestic labour,
and the influence of womens movements. 11
What can be done? What are other countries doing to elect more women? Why
are 47.3 percent of national legislators in Sweden female and compared
with only 21.7 percent in Canada? How did the numbers of women elected
to Icelands national parliament increase from 25 percent to 35 percent
in one election?
Sweden: A World Leader in Electing Women
Sweden has enjoyed gender balanced parliaments for over a decade. Gains
in womens representation began in the 1970s and by 1985, women made up
31 percent of the Swedish Riksdag12. Political opportunities for women
in Sweden are shaped by its electoral system, a conciliatory political
culture, the activity of women within political parties, and societal divisions
of domestic labour.
Sweden uses a list system of proportional representation (PR) to elect
members of the Riksdag. Political parties nominate 9 candidates per district
and seats are allocated based on the partys proportion of the vote. 13
With a list PR system, positioning on the party list is important. Political
will and commitments from the party leaders are still needed to ensure
women candidates are placed in winnable positions on party lists.
Political scientist Lisa Young concludes this structure provides more opportunities
for women candidates because it affects the behaviour of the political
parties in terms of who they choose to represent them in the electoral
process. 14 With 9 seats open for every district, candidate turnover,
and a centralized party nomination process, political parties in Sweden
literally have more opportunities to nominate female candidates. The First
Past the Post System used in Canada and the United States however, elects
one representative per district. In the United States, where 90 percent
of incumbents get re-elected, there are fewer chances to modernize the
demographic composition of Congress. This is one of many reasons cited
for the lack of gender and racial diversity in Congress. Financial barriers
for candidates in the United States are also much higher than most democracies.
With only 16 percent of women elected to Congress and the Senate, the United
States is near the bottom of the pack, ranking 65th in the world on womens
Typically, countries using some form of a list system of proportional representation
elect the most female representatives. Olivia Chow, NDP Member of Parliament
for Trinity-Spadina recently noted, Remember that in the democratic world,
there are three or four countries that do it the way we do. The rest of
them have had proportional representation for years
And on top of it they
have economic vibrancy, more women elected and greater representation of
Swedens political culture and family friendly working conditions may be
another factor facilitating the recruitment and retention of female politicians.
Sweden is often referred to as a consensual democracy, with a parliamentary
system structured to support the resolution of conflict. This is reflected
in its seating plan, where members of the Riksdag, sit in a semi-circle
facing the speakers chair. Whereas the Westminster model of parliament
pits the governing party against the opposition, two and half sword lengths
apart, members of the Riksdag have a regional seating plan. Members from
the same region are seated together, regardless of political party affiliation.
This may be one reason for the Riksdags conciliatory political culture
where debates are both passionate and respectful. Ingrid Iremark Swedens
Ambassador to Canada, notes There is no heckling in the Riksdag.
The Riksdags parliamentary schedule is also structured to provide balance
between work, family and political activity. The parliamentary calendar
is prepared one year in advance with sittings scheduled Tuesdays, Wednesdays
and Thursdays, commencing in October and ending in June. Norways national
parliament adopted a similar schedule in the early 1990s. Kirsti Kolle
Grondahl, who served as Norways first female president of parliament,
was instrumental in bringing about family friendly changes to the parliamentary
calendar and the addition of on-site child care facilities. With 37.9 percent
women elected, Norway ranks 6th in the world on womens political representation.
Women in Ontarios provincial legislature are looking for similar changes.
The truth, regardless of political party is the legislature does not
recognize a basic reality: women bear children, said Progressive Conservative
MPP Lisa MacLeod, Women are often primary care-givers and if we want more
women in the legislature we need to respect and address our unique challenges
have the opportunity to address some very real and systemic barriers facing
parents at Queens Park through changes to sitting hours and providing
daycare options for a more family friendly Queens Park. 16
Sweden: Womens Participation in Political Parties
In the 1970s, Swedens political parties voluntarily began facilitating
womens participation in party politics. Womens movements within party
structures successfully advocated for the aggressive recruitment and training
of female candidates. In 1979, women from all political parties joined
forces and worked together to pressure political parties to nominate more
Multi-party cooperation continued into the 1980s, when a high profile
report was released recommending political parties nominate 50 percent
female candidates. The report served to increase awareness on the under-representation
of women in politics and rallied public support for change. Political parties
responded and generally adhere to the 60/40 principle: neither sex is
to have more than 60 percent nor less than 40 percent of representation
within party ranks. The target is not mandatory, legislated or even formally
imposed on political parties. Rather, political parties have voluntarily
taken action because the public expects it; running women candidates is
now seen as a necessary ingredient for electoral success.
Swedish, political scientist Drude Dahlerup says In Sweden, it would be
unthinkable to form a government or appoint government committees with
fewer than 40 percent women. It is no longer democratically legitimate
to have political assemblies with an overwhelming male majority. 17
Ingrid Iremark, Swedens Ambassador to Canada notes, In Sweden, the presence
of women in politics is very normal. Political parties would have a tough
time getting elected if they did not run equal numbers of female and male
Iceland: Multi-party Awareness Campaign
Icelands parliament, the Althingi, launched a unique multi-partisan awareness
campaign in 1997. Members of the Althingi, worked together across party
lines to pass a motion instructing the government to form a parliamentary
committee responsible for increasing the representation of women. The committee
included male and female representatives from each political party, the
Ministry responsible for Gender Equality and womens organizations. The
product of the committee was a well funded, five year awareness campaign
which included: a humorous, attention-getting advertising program, training
courses, education, communications networks, public meetings, and mentoring
programs. The campaign successfully rallied public support and increased
public awareness about the need for gender balanced government. Womens
political representation increased from 25 percent to 35 percent after
the campaign had been in operation for one year.
Equal Voice: Delivering Results in Canada
The under-representation of women in Canadian politics has been documented
time and time again. There have been two Royal Commissions devoted to the
topic (the 1970 Royal Commission on the Status of Women and the 1992 Royal
Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing) and enough publications
to fill the lobby on Parliament Hill.
Equality in decision-making is essential to the empowerment of women. Canada
agreed when we signed on to the United Nations 1995 Beijing Action Plan
for Women, committing to take measures to ensure womens equal access
to and full participation in power structures, decision-making and leadership.
The United Nations notes a critical mass of at least 30 to 35 percent women
is needed before legislatures produce public policy reflecting womens
priorities and before changes in management style, group dynamic and organization
culture take place.18
Equal Voice is taking action. On International Women Day, March 8, 2007,
Equal Voice launched the multi-partisan Canada Challenge, asking the four
party leaders Stephen Harper, Stéphane Dion, Jack Layton, and Gilles
Duceppe to nominate more women candidates in the next federal election.
On April 17, 2007 the political parties accepted the Canada Challenge by
making statements in the House of Commons. This is the first federal multi-partisan
commitment to electing more women in Canadian history. It follows on the
success of Equal Voices Ontario Challenge campaign, where in 2007, the
number of women elected to Queens Park reached a historic milestone of
Equal Voice is pleased to report that the Canada Challenge is yielding
results. Newly released data tracking federal party nominations shows the
numbers of women nominated reaching historic levels (see Table 1). Since
2004, Equal Voice has monitored federal election results, via Equal Voice
Researcher Vicky Smallman, providing data for Canadians, political parties
and the press.
Table 1 - The Canada Challenge: Tracking Federal Nominations
||Candidates Nominated 2008
||Men Nominated 2008
||Women Nominated 2008
||Women Nominated 2006 Election
||Women MPs Elected 2006
|*Data collected by Equal Voice Researchers, updated January 25, 2008
Equal Voice data shows that when women run, they win. Political parties
need to be pro-active recruiting and training women candidates. To level
the playing field, parliaments around the world are implementing well funded
national action plans, providing family friendly working environments,
launching electoral and financial campaign reforms, constitutional reforms,
education, and mentoring.
All political parties need to make the decision on how to increase womens
representation and all parties have to identify processes that work for
It is all of us men and women who must take responsibility for achieving
this goal. The efforts of those who came before us can not be in vain.
Women must have an equal voice if Canada is to have a flourishing and prosperous
1. Inter-Parliamentary Union, Women in Politics: 60 Years in Retrospect,
2006, p. 16.
2. Jane Arscott and Linda Trimble. Still Counting, Broadview: 2003. p.
3. Leanne Delap. Women Only, The Globe and Mail, March 3, 2007.
4 Chinta Puxley. Finance minister under fire for sexist comments. The
Canadian Press, November 21, 2007.
5. William Lin and Tony Atherton. Press Gallery undeterred by PMs snub;
Five Tory MPs attend annual dinner, The Ottawa Citizen, October 28, 2007,
6. Joanna Everitt. Uncovering the Coverage: Gender Biases in Canadian
Political Reporting, Presentation to the Canadian Federation for the Humanities
and Social Sciences, November 17, 2005. p. 3.
7. Jennifer Lawless and Richard L. Fox. It Takes a Candidate, Cambridge:
2005, p. 98.
8. Christy Clark. Ive changed my mind we need quotas to get women into
politics, The Vancouver Province, March 11, 2007.
9. Jennifer Lawless and Richard L. Fox. p 85 and 46.
10. Jennifer Ditchburn. Women in power not a priority for Tories: ex PM
Campbell, The Canadian Press, January 10, 2008.
11. Jill Vickers. Reinventing Political Science, Fernwood, 1997, p. 130.
12. Joyce Web, Feminism and Politics: A Comparative Perspective, University
of California Press: 1989, p. 155.
13. Equal Voice interview with Ingrid Iremark Swedens Ambassador to Canada,
December 4, 2007.
14. Vickers, p. 139.
15. Vit Wagner. Electoral Reform: Chow envisions greater voice for women,
Toronto Star, September 09, 2007.
16. News Release, Equal Voice Calls for the Speaker to Implement Family
Friendly Reforms at Queens Park. November 21, 2007. Available at:
17. Karin Alfredsson. Equal Opportunities: Sweden Paves the Way, Swedish
Institute: 2005, p.19.
18. United Nations, Women and Decision Making, 2000. Available at: