Gender diversity in politics top-of-mind for N.B. lawmakers on International Women’s Day

Click to play video: 'Some say solutions to gender parity in New Brunswick politics are obvious'
Some say solutions to gender parity in New Brunswick politics are obvious
WATCH: The 2020 provincial election saw a record number of women win seats in the legislative assembly, but women still make up less than a third of provincial lawmakers. Political leaders have been wrestling with how to increase gender parity for years, but some say the answers are obvious. Silas Brown explains. – Mar 8, 2023

On International Women’s Day, politicians in New Brunswick reflected on the continued gender gap among elected representatives.

In the 2020 provincial election, 14 women won a seat in the New Brunswick legislature. While that number represents a historic high, it still falls well below gender parity. Of the 227 candidates who ran in that election, 74 were women.

Norma Dube, the director of Women for 50% says the barriers women face when looking to enter politics are well known and not enough is being done to address them.

“It’s not just for women to do the work, it’s for all of us as a society,” she said, “whether it be men, women, political parties, media. We have to change our frame of mind.”

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Barriers range from a lack of family-friendly services provided by legislatures, to less developed political and financial networks, to a comparative lack of role models. The latter can have a sort of negative feedback effect, Dube says.

“When you talk to young girls, they will see themselves in women that they see. If they don’t see them at those decision-making tables, that’s not necessarily something that they’ll gravitate towards,” she said.

Women also face a disproportionate amount of online abuse and still encounter gender discrimination in what has long been a male-dominated space. When all those factors are put together, it makes it tough to convince women to throw their hats in the ring.

“When you think of all of those things, imagine when political parties actually approach women to run. Her first reaction will probably be ‘no,'” Dube said.

“It’s the responsibility of that party to ask a second time, then to ask a third time and to explore what those barriers might be and work with her as a potential candidate.”

Answers on how to address some of those barriers aren’t hard to find, says Green MLA Megan Mitton.

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“We actually already know the answers,” she said. “Women haven’t said we won’t tell you, it’s a secret, women have been saying, the way politics is run.”

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Mitton said things like legislative calendars that bring an extra level of predictability to the life of a lawmaker can help. She’s also been calling for an end to the practice of publishing the home addresses of candidates.

She says that the move to proportional representation away from first-past-the-post has also been shown to have an impact on the diversity of candidates.

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Federal Election 2019: Singh committed to end ‘unfair’ First Past the Post system

The Greens were the only party to run a gender-balanced slate of candidates in the 2020 election. Mitton says the party has worked hard to ensure that the organization as a whole has women in leadership positions, which she believes helps when it’s time to go recruiting.

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“We strive to have representation and equity in our party, both behind the scenes and in terms of candidates,” she said.

Liberal leader Susan Holt is the first woman elected to lead the provincial party. She’s actively looking to recruit female candidates and says that on top of the larger, systemic barriers, the structure of political parties needs a look as well to ensure that more women are involved at the grassroots level.

Part of attracting more women and people from diverse backgrounds to run for the party is making the job more attractive itself, Holt says. That means ensuring her MLAs can still have a healthy work-life balance, but also respecting their individual passions.

“It’s a lot more personal, that the people who become candidates have some autonomy to express themselves, not take a script passed to them by me and my words, but to speak from their hearts with their ideas and their minds in a more independent way,” she said.

Holt is the only woman running for the party in three upcoming byelections. She said she had conversations with several women who were considering running, but all ultimately opted against it.

“For a variety of different reasons,” she said. “Some of it was timing in this case, but some of it was what I talked about. The job doesn’t look appealing from the outside.”

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Part of the issue in finding candidates comes down to deeper societal issues, according to PC MLA Andrea Anderson-Mason. A lack of civics education, along with understanding of and engagement with the political process, makes it more difficult to find candidates in general let alone female ones.

“There’s a very small number of people who are genuinely interested and passionate about politics and so there’s such a small number of people. And then you take that group of people, and how many of them are female? It’s even smaller,” she said.

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