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COMMENTARY: Women in politics — are we there yet?

Northwest Territories Premier Caroline Cochrane speaks at the territorial legislature in Yellowknife, Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019.
Northwest Territories Premier Caroline Cochrane speaks at the territorial legislature in Yellowknife, Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Government of the Nortwest Territories, Bill Braden

Imagine you’ve been sealed off in a biosphere for the past decade with no access to media. You emerge this week, anxious to catch up on world news, landing on a webpage covering U.S politics.

There are a lot of photos of old men. What are you looking at, you wonder? Is this a board of directors slate for some posh Florida retirement condo? The confusion is understandable, but no, you would be looking at the three septuagenarian 2020 U.S. presidential hopefuls, comprised of two Democratic nomination frontrunners the youngster in the field is the portly, 74-year-old, spray-tanned Republican White House incumbent who was first elected to office (any office) in 2016. All male. Pale. Stale. You despair.

But this isn’t science fiction, and there is no biosphere. This is what people are seeing and believing is the norm. What must young people, women especially, be thinking about who is best suited to lead them into the future when these are the options?

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READ MORE: Elizabeth Warren drops out of Democratic presidential race

It’s not that there haven’t been excellent candidates in the crowded Democratic field: Sen. Kamala Harris, African-American, moderate, smart and sidelined early, lacking traction and a sufficient war chest; the moderate, experienced, passionate Sen. Amy Klobuchar, clobbered on Super Tuesday (March 3), when 14 states and 34 per cent of delegates were up for grabs; and Elizabeth Warren, a tenacious, progressive warrior, who became a distant straggler to the frontrunners and packed it in on March 5.

Even the most progressive/radical in the Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders, was quoted on his belief that in 2020, a woman is not electable in the presidential race. Bernie was not trying to say a woman shouldn’t be elected. He was just stating the sad truth, that despite the hard-fought, incremental progress in electing women to political office, an experienced, effective woman candidate could not win in 2020 facing the superbly underqualified and widely reviled (outside his core base) autocratic incumbent, Donald Trump. Just like in 2016.

‘I so wish that we had a woman president of the United States’: Pelosi after Warren ceases campaign
‘I so wish that we had a woman president of the United States’: Pelosi after Warren ceases campaign

But this is Canada! Surely we are doing better? It depends on how you define “better” and who we are measured against.

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According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the proportion of women who hold seats in our federal and provincial legislatures rose from 22.1 per cent in January 2010 to 27.99 per cent in January 2020.

No question, we’ve got the trend right, but despite priding ourselves on being progressive and inclusive, we are not keeping pace. Canada’s ranking amongst 193 countries in the survey has slipped from 50th in 2010 to 58th in 2020, where we are now sandwiched between Albania and Estonia. In this ranking, Canada lost eight places, on pace with our counterparts to the south, which fell from a tie with Turkmenistan for 74th place in 2010 to 82nd place, just behind Armenia.

READ MORE: (Jan. 13, 2020) Elizabeth Warren says Bernie Sanders didn’t think a woman could be president

It’s not that we can’t do better.

Take 2013, when provincial/territorial leadership briefly formed an ideal picture of gender balance in politics: out of 13 leaders, six women headed five provinces and one territory, covering a majority of the population. This virtual parity in regional leadership did more than just advance a handful of women politicians; it normalized the notion of women leading a province or territory. It debunked the idea that any woman in power represented the monolithic “women’s view.” These women leaders represented different parties, focused on different issues and varied in their performance; some were more effective than others — just like men.

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Fast forward to 2020. Caroline Cochrane is the lone woman among Canada’s 13 premiers. There are five women leading provincial/territorial parties: four of five are NDP, two are official Opposition, two are third parties and one (as co-leader) is a fourth party.

Ontario MP Marilyn Gladu lone woman to seek Conservative leadership
Ontario MP Marilyn Gladu lone woman to seek Conservative leadership

Apparently, you are more likely as a woman to be in a leadership position if you lead a party that is unlikely to win. And the further left you go, the higher the proportion of women candidates, incumbents and leaders. Having said that, our only woman prime minister was a Conservative but succeeded to that role when the party was hugely unpopular and faced a disastrous outcome months later when the party, and her political career, were decimated.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. As Kendall Anderson, executive director of the Samara Centre for Democracy, said: “If you put women in winnable seats, they will win — Canadians won’t vote against their party choice because the candidate is a woman. But all too often, women end up stuck in races where the expectation of winning the seat is low.”

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READ MORE: (Oct. 23, 2019) Canada set a new record for most elected female MPs, but advocates expected more

So now the good news.

It’s refreshing to see that the March 7, 2020, race to select a new leader for the Ontario provincial Liberal Party features gender parity with three women and three men. That’s progress, even though the frontrunner is a man. It means women are starting to see themselves as contenders, and they are showing a greater willingness to put themselves forward. They are providing role models for future hopefuls, and the importance of that should never be minimized. Especially because girls and young women desperately need to see women in leadership roles in politics so they understand that woman are, in fact, supposed to be there.

So, when asked: “Are we there yet?” the answer is clear — no, because there is no “there.” Progress to include women in our political leadership is fragile, and none of it can be taken for granted.

Stephanie MacKendrick is vice-chair of the board of The Samara Centre for Democracy and author of ‘In Good Hands: Remarkable Female Politicians From Around the World Who Showed Up, Spoke Out and Made Change,’ a book that encourages young women to run for office. It’s available April 7.