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Political Representation of Females in National Legislatures Essay

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Updated: Apr 3rd, 2019

Introduction

The issue of women’s political representation has taken center stage in many countries all over the world which have in recent years sought ways to improve female representation. This is because the world has come to recognize that the representation of women in national legislatures is a necessary condition for women’s empowerment.

Both developed and developing nations have recognized the need to increase women representation in their parliaments. In Canada, significant progress has been made over the past decade towards improving women’s representation in elected political office.

The major political party in Canada, the Liberal Party of Canada, has a caucus of female parliamentarians. Following the 2006 elections, only 20.8% of the members of the Canadian House of Commons were women. The year 2011 was especially marked by great political achievement by women.

In spite of these positive steps, the number of women in parliament is still significantly low which highlights the need for strategies to offset this condition. This paper will set out to identify and defend two strategies that can be used by Canada to improve the political representation of females in national legislatures.

The merits of the advanced strategies will be articulated with reference to other countries where these strategies have achieved favorable results.

Why Strategies are needed

While women have been involved in Canadian political parties for the most part of the twentieth century, their role tended to be predominantly supportive. This trend changed in the late 1960s when female activism began to challenge the character of their involvement in party affairs and women began to call for more representation in political parties1.

The last two decades have undoubtedly witnessed a phenomenal increase in women representation in the political sphere in Canada and also other countries all over the world.

Matland articulates that while the increase in parliamentary representation of women has been the result of many factors, most of the positive change has been as a result of activists pushing for institutions that maximize women’s chances of representation2.

However, the increase has not yet reached a level that would be desirable in an ideal democracy where equal representation is practiced.

Research indicates that a number of Canadian voters are concerned about the under-representation of women in parliament and this has led to some moderate public support for strategies that will result in higher women representation in parliament.

Countries which have little democratic virtues such as Cuba and Rwanda boast of greater numbers of women parliamentarians than Canada which considers itself a model democracy.

It is important to note that a nation’s level of development does not promote women’s political representation and studies have shown that poor countries demonstrate better records of electing women than do rich countries. Canada should seek to emulate strategies for increasing women’s participation in parliament that have been adapted in other parts of the world with great success.

Strategies for Improving Political Representation

  • Electoral Quotas

Many democracies have acknowledged that women will not be able to equal men in political representation without measures being put in place to give them an advantage. One strategy that can be used is electoral quotas which make the use of positive discrimination so as to shift the balance of legislative chambers in favor of females3.

Tripp and Alice assert that “Quotas have become an important mechanism through which women today are entering legislatures worldwide.”4 A vast majority of the top 25 countries in the world in terms of women’s’ representation make use of some form of quotas demonstrating just how effective this strategy is in enhancing women participation.

The goal of electoral sex quotas is to ensure that women “make up a certain predetermined portion of the member of a political body; be it a party’s candidate list or a parliamentary assembly”5. The Nordic countries stand out for their success in promoting women’s representation.

The strategy that has been implemented by these countries has predominantly been electoral quotas, specifically the slow track approach6. This approach relies on the use of voluntary party quotas which require a certain mandatory minimum number of women nominees.

In the use of quotas, political parties are a key component. The popular assumption in democratic systems is that it is the electorate that controls the composition of parliament. However, a closer look reveals that it is the parties that control the selection process of candidates and therefore by extension the composition of parliaments.

Research indicates that the use of political parties as the launching pad from which women’s representation can be expanded is the most viable strategy7. This is because political parties play an important role in the legislative recruitment process. They are the entities that identify possible candidates, choose them as their official candidates and after this; the candidate is put forward for public election.

The party choosing of a candidate is a crucial stage for women who aspire to get into political office. In Canada, the nomination process provides opportunities for people to participate in a decentralized context. Incorporation of rules that guarantee women’s representation, for example quotas, can have a distinct advantage for women.

Research indicates that in the quota system adopted in many Nordic countries that guarantee that between 40 and 50 percent of the party nominees will be women, has a positive effect on women’s representation in these countries8.

It has not been easily to adopt positive affirmative measures and quotas in Canada due to the decentralized nature of the selection process of candidates in the country. All parties seek to nominate candidates who are likely to maximize the votes for the party9.

As such, candidates who have high visibility in the community or hold public office or leadership positions in civil society organizations are considered highly desirable.

As it turns out, in the Canadian society, this category of people is predominantly male which presents a major disadvantage to female candidates. Even so, quotas can be effectively employed in the Canadian scene since there is a presence of robust political parties and only a marginal number of independent candidates enter parliament.

For quotas to be effective, women have to be well-prepared to take up political office. This can only be achieved by a strengthening of women’s organization or political engagement which will make it possible for the women to take advantage of this strategy which are used to give them a favorable advantage.

  • Changing the Electoral System

Another strategy that can be used in Canada is a change from the current electoral system. A change in the electoral system adopted by Canada can also result in a marked increase in the political representation of females in national legislatures.

As it currently stands, Canada makes use of a single member plurality (SMP) electoral system which has been showcased to be less favorable for women candidates. In a PR voting system, women can organize and actively engage in the electoral process with visible results.

The merits that PM systems possess for females is best articulated by MacIvor who states that “parliaments elected by proportional representation show higher percentages of women than parliaments constituted by plurality/majority systems.”10

Research indicates that women have historically had a better advantage under PR systems. This is because the people who choose candidates for the party have different concerns and incentives in the PR system compared to the SMP system.

In SMP electoral systems, the party is forced to only nominate one person per district which makes it impossible to balance the party ticket by nominating a male and female candidate11. The SMP system forces parties to pit the male candidates against the male in the nomination process. Women are often disadvantaged when they have to compete against powerful male politicians in the same district.

PR systems make it possible for party gatekeepers to nominate diverse candidates in an attempt to attract more votes. Since the party is in a position to nominate more than one candidate, the party can put forward different candidates who will attract varying classes of voters.

Women candidates are therefore more likely to be nominated in a PR system since the party is not forced to sacrifice its powerful male politicians for the sake of the women as would be the case in a majority system.

A party which nominates men in a PR system and therefore fails to provide some balance will suffer from reduced votes. The PR system therefore offers an incentive for the party to nominate women candidates and therefore increase their chances of gaining entry into parliament.

In spite of the obvious advantages that a PR system could bring about for women, Canada continues to use the SMP system. Referendums held in Canadian provinces seeking to abolish SMDP have repeatedly failed to obtain a majority and this system continues to be implemented in Canada.

Activists should therefore take up steps to encourage people to vote for the adoption of a PR system so as to give women an advantage in the electoral process and therefore increase their representation in parliament.

Challenge with Women Representation

Empirical studies on the political representation of women demonstrate that female politicians see themselves as having a responsibility to represent women. Female politicians therefore consider women as an important constituency group with specific concerns12.

This tendency is to some extent brought about by the notion by female members that if they do not address women issues, they will go unnoticed. This idea of having a certain mandate in representing women may have a detrimental effect since it may end up sidelining the male population or issues that affect the entire society.

Female legislators tend to set legislative agenda and propose new bills that address issues of concern to women at the expense of other agendas13.

While this may be true, many scholars document that party affiliations and ideology have a neutralizing effect on this trend since they instill discipline on women concerning what agendas to pursue once they are elected14. Female legislators are therefore deterred from focusing only on feminist policy concerns.

Discussion

The adoption of strategies to increase chances of women taking up political office demonstrates that there is popular believe in the opinion that women should have greater political representation. Both male and female voters view the legislature as been more legitimate when there are more women since there is an inherent belief that gender balance is a more just arrangement15.

This paper has highlighted two strategies that can be utilized to achieve this goal in Canada. Practicing of some degree of positive action is necessary by Canadian parties to ensure that women have a chance at achieving equal political representation with men.

If political parties adopt gender-neutral nominating policies, the number of candidates will be predominantly men and this will hurt the chances of women to take up political office. Women need to become more active and effective voices within the society and also in their respective parties are they are to take advantage of the strategies outlined in this paper.

From the strategies advocated in this paper, it is clear that the key to increasing female representation is to convince parties to choose women as their candidates and adopt an electoral system that is favorable for women.

The two strategies advocated in this paper will be most effective if they are implemented concurrently. While each strategy will result to positive changes independently, the scale of positive impact will be higher if both strategies are adopted. This is because research indicates that quotas are more effective in PR and MMP systems than single-member-based systems.

While the PR system is beneficial to women, it should be adopted with some form of mandatory quotas for women’s representation. Without a mandatory quota, the number of women elected will be dependent on the drive of the particular political party to increase its women’s representation.

In addition to this, studies show that while quotas have had a desirable effect in increasing women membership in parliament, the design of the electoral institution can result in an even more substantial increase in female numbers in parliament.

In addition to the proposed strategies, the issue of women’s representation should be given high priority by the media so as to pressure political parties and the government to keep taking positive steps to increase women representation. This is because the prevailing gender attitudes in a nation influence the chances of women getting elected into the legislature.

Conclusion

This paper set out to highlight strategies that can be used to achieve the goal of increased female political representation in Canada’s national legislatures. The paper has recognized that there has been a significant rise in women’s representation in national legislatures in Canada in recent decades.

Even so, the paper has documented that female politicians still have a numerical minority in the Canadian parliament. It has been demonstrated that the electoral sex quotas can be advantageous to women.

The paper has also demonstrated that the electoral system employed by a country effects female legislative representative since it dictates the strategies that are adopted by a party in the nomination phase.

A PR system will therefore result in increased women representation in the legislative process. It can therefore be surmised that by adopting the two strategies proposed in this paper, Canada will achieve the goal of higher female representative in the legislature.

Bibliography

Caul, Miki. “Women’s Representation in Parliament.” Party Politics 5, no.1 (1999): 79-89.

Crowley, Jocelyn. “When Tokens Matter.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 29 no.1 (2004): 109–36.

Fraenkel, Jon. “The Impact of Electoral Systems on Women’s Representation in Pacific Parliaments.” Impact of Electoral Systems. Impact of Electoral Systems, 23, no.2 (2005): 58-106.

Karp, Jeffrey and Susan Banducci. “When Politics Is Not Just a Man’s Game: Women’s Representation and Political Engagement.” Electoral Studies 27 no.1 (2008): 105–15.

Krook, Mona. “Studying Political Representation: A Comparative-Gendered Approach.” Perspectives on Politics 8, no.1 (2010): 233-240.

MacIvor, Heather. “Women and the Canadian Electoral System.” In Manon Tremblay and Linda Trimble (eds) Women and Electoral Politics in Canada, Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Matland, Richard. Enhancing Women’s Political Participation: Legislative Recruitment and Electoral Systems. Stockholm: International IDEA, 1998.

Reingold, Beth. Representing Women: Sex, Gender and Legislative Behavior in Arizona and California. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Tremblay, Manon. “Women’s Representational Role in Australia and Canada: The Impact of Political Context.” Australian Journal of Political Science 38, no. 2 (2003): 215–238.

Tripp, Aili and Alice, Kang. “The Global Impact of Quotas: On the Fast Track to Increased Female Legislative Representation.” Comparative Political Studies 41, no.3 (2008): 338–361.

Footnotes

1 Jeffrey Karp and Susan Banducci, “When Politics Is Not Just A Man’s Game: Women’s Representation and Political Engagement,” Electoral Studies 27 no.1 (2008): 109.

2 Richard Matland, Enhancing Women’s Political Participation: Legislative Recruitment and Electoral Systems (Stockholm: International IDEA, 2005), 108.

3 Fraenkel, Jon. “The Impact of Electoral Systems on Women’s Representation in Pacific Parliaments.” Impact of Electoral Systems 23, no.2 (2005): 81.

4 Aili Tripp and Alice Kang, “The Global Impact of Quotas: On the Fast Track to Increased Female Legislative Representation,” Comparative Political Studies 41, no.3 (2008), 357.

5 Aili and Alice, 357.

6 Crowley Jocelyn, “When Tokens Matter,” Legislative Studies Quarterly 29 no.1 (2004): 129.

7 Miki Caul, “Women’s Representation in Parliament,” Party Politics 5, no1, (1999): 82.

8 Richard, 95

9 Richard, 97

10 Heather MacIvor, “Women and the Canadian Electoral System”, in Manon Tremblay and Linda Trimble (eds), Women and Electoral Politics in Canada (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2003), 35.

11 Richard, 101.

12 Manon, 215.

13 Mona Krook, “Studying Political Representation: A Comparative-Gendered Approach,” Perspectives on Politics 8, no.1 (2010): 236.

14 Beth Reingold, Representing Women: Sex, Gender and Legislative Behavior in Arizona and California

(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 34.

15 Krook, 237.

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