Following the record-breaking number and historic diversity of women who have recently formed the 116th Congress in the US, there has been renewed conversation about the relationship between gender and politics.
Here in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formed the first gender-balanced cabinet in the country’s history upon his election in 2015. The Liberal government undoubtedly took major strides in proportional female representation in politics, given that women make up a little over half of Canada’s population. However, there is still much to do on this front.
The disproportionality problem
Only 26 per cent of the candidates elected from all parties in the 2015 federal election were women. This imbalance serves as a deterrent and discouragement for women pursuing political careers.
Something certainly needs to change. After all, gender underrepresentation in positions of power is not exclusive to politics, but is mirrored across many sectors of society, including at U of T. The Varsity recently reported on the lack of women among full-time tenured and tenure-stream faculty and Governing Council members.
Ideally, improving female representation in politics will set an example for industries, institutions, and organizations to do the same. It is an excellent starting point to make a difference.
It must be said that there is no dispute that candidates for office must be chosen on merit. However, the currently male-dominated Canadian government is not functioning better than it would be with the inclusion of more women.
There are countless women who are as qualified for governmental leadership as their male counterparts, but are systemically overlooked for elections. This is rooted in a history of misogyny that we have yet to fully overcome.
In a perfectly meritocratic society without misogyny, the gap between women in politics and the overall population would, at the very least, be much smaller.
The importance of women in politics goes beyond the ideals of representation and demographic equality. Women have capabilities and perspectives that are fundamental to the success of government.
A recent study conducted by U of T professor Carles Muntaner and University of Waterloo assistant professor Edwin Ng, titled “The effect of women in government on population health,” highlights this importance.
Women in politics tend to be more collaborative and more willing to work in bipartisan ways relative to men. They are more likely to employ more democratic styles of leadership and take important steps to dismantle the toxic polarity that stands in the way of effective decision-making.
They have also placed emphasis on spending for medical and preventive care, social services, postsecondary education, and equal-pay initiatives — all of which play a significant role in improving the quality of life for Canadians.
Including more women in politics will bring increased diversity of thought and important perspective to decision-making. This diversity is key to innovation in government.
Harnessing the power of women is not only a social imperative, but an economic one. A 2017 report by the McKinsey Global Institute reported that efforts to reduce gender inequality could result in a $150 billion increase in Canada’s incremental gross domestic product, as women would be able to use their capabilities to their full advantage in positions of power and leadership.
This increase would be equivalent to the effect of adding an entirely new financial services sector to the country. Women are an essential resource that age-old misogyny prevents from being capitalized upon. Holding back women equates to holding back the Canadian economy.
The input of female leaders is also important when it comes to conversations, conclusions, and policy decisions about distinctly female issues, such as maternity leave and the gender pay gap. Policies about women and for women must be influenced by women.
Feminism beyond gender
Furthermore, to have women equally represented in government is to honour the very principles of democracy itself. From its Ancient Greek etymology, democracy means ‘rule by the people.’ Unlike the government, the population of Canada is not mostly male. Canadians are diverse in a multitude of facets, including gender. It is imperative that the Canadian government mirror this diversity.
To this end, expanding the concept of feminism is necessary. Feminism is only superficially the belief in the social, economic, and political equality of the sexes. However, in 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw, a civil rights activist and scholar, built on the foundations of activists before her and coined the term ‘intersectionality.’
Gender issues are complex, layered, and nuanced by class, race, ability, age, religion, and sexuality, among others. When applied to feminism, intersectionality acknowledges those different opportunities and perspectives that come with the diverse identities of women.
Equal representation in politics does not simply mean having an even split of men and women sitting on Parliament Hill. True representation means the inclusion and equality of opportunity for women from all classes, abilities, sexualities, ages, religions, and races.
It means improved decision-making, bipartisan collaboration, strengthened economies, and faith in government. This applies to the gaps that exist at U of T too.
It is easy for the Trudeau government to sit complacently behind the guise of a gender-balanced cabinet, but much more progress is needed. Hopefully, all political parties take the upcoming 2019 federal election as an opportunity to combat gender inequality and embrace the powerful capabilities of women — of all kinds.
Isabella Giancola is a first-year Rotman Commerce student at Trinity College.