The electoral glass ceiling for women: Representation and political equality

Friday, February 12, 2010

Linda Trimble, University of Alberta
Guest Contributor

Seven years ago Jane Arscott and I wrote a book called Still Counting: Women in Politics Across Canada.  We gave stark evidence of the electoral glass ceiling for women. At that point, 85 years after most women won the right to vote and stand for office, women held only 20% of the seats in Canada’s parliament and legislatures. Sure, 20% was better than nothing. It was better than the mere 2% of seats women held in 1970, the year the Royal Commission on the Status of Women released its report, urging governments to do something about this appalling under-representation of women in politics. Sure, 20% in 2002 was better than 10% in 1984. But 20% is not even halfway to equal, and, we argued, not half good enough.

Jane and I suggested that the electoral glass ceiling for women was set at 25% of the legislative seats for the foreseeable future. Of course we hoped we were wrong. In one sense, we were wrong – we set the bar too high. The 25% ceiling has still not yet been reached. Right now, in 2009, women hold 23% of the legislative positions across Canada. Clearly we were right about the seemingly impervious barriers to women’s political equality. The electoral glass ceiling shows no signs of cracking, never mind breaking.

So Jane and I are still adding up the numbers.

In the 7 years since we wrote the book, women’s legislative representation has increased by a very meager 3%. Jane has calculated that 31 elections have been held since we published Still Counting, and these elections have produced 32 more female legislators. The math is clear – only one additional female representative per election.

Even worse, in the House of Commons, women’s representation has only increased by one percent since 1997. In effect, it’s been stuck at 22% for 12 years! As a result, Canada has fallen precipitously in the international rankings, dropping from 34th in 2002 to 48th place right now. It seems that every time I check the Inter-Parliamentary Union website, Canada has slipped yet again. We’re not electing fewer women to our national Parliament. But other countries are electing more – lots more. Women hold 57% of the seats in Rwanda’s national assembly, 47% in Sweden’s, 45% in South Africa’s parliament. Twenty-one countries have succeeded in meeting the 30% ‘critical mass’ target set by the United Nations as a minimum benchmark for women’s representation in electoral politics.

At the current rate of progress it will be decades before Canada meets this goal.

The news is not all bad. Provincially, there are some beacons of hope – 5 provinces where the percentage of female legislators exceeds 25% - Manitoba, Quebec, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, and, of course, British Columbia. Still, representation for women in Canada has stalled at under 25%. And despite the best efforts of organizations like Equal Voice, there is little momentum. There is little movement at the top either, in party leadership positions.

Party leadership has been a revolving door for women. Women who ascend to party leadership positions tend to get spun about and expelled in short order, sometimes in less than a year. And very few make it to the very top. Only six women have served as government leader – prime minister or premier – and two of them held the position all too briefly. The high water mark for women party leaders was in 1993, when ten women led competitive political parties in Canada. Three of them were heads of government, including then Prime Minister, Kim Campbell. When we wrote Still Counting in 2002 there were only three female party leaders, and no women government leaders.

The situation has improved only marginally. Right now there are seven women leading competitive political parties, including the Green Party’s Elizabeth May. With the exception of Danielle Smith, recently elected to lead Alberta’s new right-wing party, the Wildrose Alliance, these women are all leaders of social democratic parties. I’m counting Pauline Marois, leader of the Parti Québécois in this category. The NDP has by far the strongest track record of choosing female leaders. Indeed, the very first woman to assume the party leader’s role in Canada was Therese Casgrain, leader of the Quebec CCF from 1951-57, and the first woman to seek the leadership of a national party was Rosemary Brown, who gave Ed Broadbent a run for his money in 1975. Audrey McLaughlin and Alexa McDonough led the federal NDP party for 12 years, and right now women lead the NDP in Ontario, Newfoundland, Yukon and British Columbia. The bad news is that, with the exception of BC’s Carole James, these women head parties that are unlikely to win political office anytime soon. The good news is that Canada once again has a female premier; Eva Aariak became Premier of Nunavut just over a year ago.

Linda Trimble is a Professor and former Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Email:


Equity Matters


Equity Matters