Closing the gender gap in Canadian politics

Well, the results are in and the state of women in Canadian politics has once again been found lacking. Last week the CBC reported on the findings of the World Economic Forum (WEF), citing that Canada ranks a disappointing 18th in the world rankings of women in politics.

For anyone who remotely follows politics, particularly at a federal level, this finding is by no means a startling revelation. It is no secret that there is a vast disproportion between men and women sitting in our House of Commons. As such, what should such a study like this mean to us?

The lack of women in politics is something which cannot be taken lightly. Canada operates under a democratic system in which there should be representation of the population. Essentially, the people sitting in the House of Commons are supposed to form an accurate snapshot of the Canadian public, allowing all the interests and concerns of the public to be brought to the table. It goes then almost without saying that having no women would lead to an inaccurate representation of women. Having women in politics would serve to bring up concerns and ideas which may otherwise, even inadvertently, go by unnoticed.

When reading the comments underneath the article on the WEF’s report, there was a recurring theme. It went something like this, “Women just don’t like politics. They have simply chosen to go into other fields of work.” My gut instinct was to hesitantly agree with this statement. Even though I have a deep fascination with politics, I realized a long time ago that this feeling was not shared with the majority of my female friends. It is possible that for some reason women and politics just don’t mix?

For expert advice on this question I emailed Andrea Brown, a political science professor here at Wilfrid Laurier University. She explained that many barriers to women in politics occur in a variety of ways, most notably through unflattering media coverage and a general discouragement of women from seeking positions of power from a young age. All of these factors join together to give us our present situation: a democratic system that is missing the voice of a large part of its population.

WEF has suggested that 30 per cent is the appropriate quota to strive for women’s representation. When women hold 30 per cent of the highest, most privileged positions, gender equality will steadily improve, or so the argument goes. In their ideal sense, there is a definite argument that can be made for quotas. They provide a target, a concrete goal against which the organization can measure their development. By putting out reports such as these, the World Economic Forum is keeping a very important issue in the spotlight.

However, I still view the entire idea of a quota with a bit of hesitation. It seems to me that implementing any quota draws an incredibly fine line between equality and discrimination.

Discrimination is defined as “the treatment of, or distinctions made, in favour of or against a person based on the group to which they belong, rather than on individual merit.” Selecting a woman for a seat simply because she belongs to a particular gender group is no less discriminatory than excluding her for the same reason.

Equality in politics is essential, but if we try to implement it by force, aren’t we only perpetuating discrimination?

In our search for the balance point between these two sides we must turn back to the definition of discrimination. This definition ends with an interesting word: merit. It is this word which I feel provides the answer to our questions. At the end of the day it is the capabilities and qualifications of a person which must gain them the job, rather than their age, height, ethnic background, gender or any other sort of differentiating feature.

This is particularly important when it comes to politics, as the decisions which are made here can alter the course of our lives. The reason why women have so long struggled to hold a place in politics is not because they lack the merit to do the job, but because their merits have historically been devalued. As such, agreeing on a targeted number of representation is healthy for reminding the public of the vital role diversity plays in politics.

Yet, a quota must never turn a person’s gender into a merit in and of itself.

To provide long-term support for equal representation within politics, we must first focus on changing the framework of socialization and media coverage which surrounds politics. Only then can we see true change.

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