It may be 2016 in the federal cabinet room, but when it comes to House of Commons standing committees, women are still struggling to achieve equal representation.
Three-quarters of the new standing committees in the House of Commons, which were presented to the House for approval on Jan. 29, have two female members or fewer. And a couple of them include no women at all.
Committees play a vital role in Canadian democracy, reviewing legislation and examining the spending plans of various government departments and agencies. Some have even broader mandates that allow them to examine matters that have government-wide implications.
There are 24 standing committees in the new session of Parliament, all of which are made up of 10 members. Of these:
- 9 committees include two female members
- 7 committees count just one woman in their ranks
- 2 committees (the committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, and the committee on Industry, Science and Technology) are all-male
- Only 1 committee (the committee on the Status of Women) has a majority of female members
The overall proportion of women in the House of Commons now stands at 26 per cent, meaning that just a quarter of these important decision-making groups are representative of the gender balance in the House – let alone the make-up of Canadian society as a whole.
The composition of standing committees was worked out by the whips for the Liberal, Conservative and the New Democratic caucuses. The prime minister, Cabinet ministers and parliamentary secretaries were not included in the pool of potential candidates.
“This is indicative of why we need more women in the House of Commons,” said Nancy Peckford, a spokesperson for Equal Voice Canada.
“We knew this was going to be a challenge. This is a chronic, unresolvable problem until you elect more women … Nobody wants those committees to have no women, or so few women. You just don’t have the numbers.”
She’s right. Of the 88 women in the House of Commons, 85 are eligible to be in cabinet, sit on a standing committee, sit on a House of Commons/Senate joint committee, or to serve as a parliamentary secretary (Elizabeth May and the female Bloc Quebecois MPs are ineligible because their parties don’t have official status).
Every single woman who can fulfill one of these four roles is now doing so.
“It’s my sincere hope that in our next general election we can get more wonderful female, lady members of Parliament.” said Andrew Leslie, the whip for the Liberal caucus. “It’s the straight numbers … unfortunately for certain committees, we’ve literally run out.”
There are also other considerations that may trump gender when it comes time to appoint members. Each committee is designed to roughly mirror the parties’ seat-counts in the House of Commons, for example, and also needs to account for regional diversity. Linguistic and ethnic diversity may also be important for certain groups, like the Heritage committee.
Nevertheless, the over-representation of male committee members presents an uncomfortable situation for the new Liberal government. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a big splash both at home and internationally last fall when he declared he was appointing a gender-balanced cabinet “because it’s 2015.”
Trudeau has also said he believes that gender balance in government brings “better decision making” overall.
Peckford said Equal Voice, which pushes for greater female representation in government, doesn’t believe that the Liberals (or any other party) are intentionally trying to hold female MPs back.
“The talent and expertise of women in that House are being fully leveraged,” she said. “There just aren’t enough of them.”