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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in celebrating International Women's Day with his wife Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau (far right) along with women from his caucus in Ottawa on Tuesday. (FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in celebrating International Women's Day with his wife Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau (far right) along with women from his caucus in Ottawa on Tuesday. (FRED CHARTRAND/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

WORK IN PROGRESS

Canada has more women in cabinet, but fewer sit on Commons committees Add to ...

This story is part of Work in Progress, The Globe's look at the global struggle for gender parity.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attracted international accolades by appointing women to half of the positions in his cabinet and a dozen others as parliamentary secretaries, but now he has run out of female MPs to sit on House of Commons committees, where important work gets done.

This is the unintended consequence of his gender-parity strategy – two of the 24 standing committees have no female MPs – industry, science and technology and access to information, privacy and ethics. Of the seven committees that have one woman, two do not include a female government MP.

Commons committees are crucial to studying legislation, looking at departmental spending and giving backbench MPs a chance to dig into issues, and rookie MPs a chance to develop their political skills and figure out Parliament.

There are 50 female MPs in the Liberal caucus – 15 of them are in cabinet and 12 are parliamentary secretaries. That leaves 23 Liberal women for 24 committees.

“Essentially, we have run out,” said Andrew Leslie, chief government Whip, who is in charge of the committee assignments for his caucus, juggling requests from MPs to sit on certain committees.

Four women – three Liberals and one Conservative – serve as committee chairs. The only committee with a female majority is status of women – it has one male MP, who is a young Liberal rookie.

“I am sorry that there are fewer women on committees,” said Irene Mathyssen, the NDP deputy whip. “As glamorous as it is to be strutting in the House of Commons, committees, we know, are where the real work gets done.”

Diversity on committees is important; women believe they bring a different view to issues.

“It’s not that it’s a right or a wrong perspective. It’s just different,” said Pam Damoff, the newly elected Liberal MP for Oakville North-Burlington and the only woman on the public safety and national security committee. “It’s early going so far, but I do think it [female membership] gives a slightly different lens to look at things.”

There are 10 members on each committee – six Liberals, three Conservatives and one New Democrat. The numbers for each party are based on their representation in the House.

Mr. Trudeau’s promise to make committees more independent has also added to the dearth of female representation. There was criticism among opposition during the past government about having parliamentary secretaries, who are considered junior cabinet ministers, on their respective committees. The view was that the Harper government was using parliamentary secretaries to do the bidding of their minister, hijacking the committee’s independence.

Mr. Leslie said his government was “determined not to repeat that.”

And so, parliamentary secretaries are not on committees, giving Mr. Leslie even fewer female MPs to work with (the Prime Minister, cabinet ministers, opposition leaders, and the Speaker are also not appointed to committees).

“Do we need more women in caucus? Absolutely,” Mr. Leslie said.

And not just in the Liberal caucus, but in the entire Commons, where there are a total of 88 female MPs and 250 male MPs; women account for 26 per cent of the 338 seats.

The Conservatives elected 99 MPs – 17 are women. They are allowed to appoint three MPs to each committee. The third-party NDP has 44 MPs, 18 of whom are women. They are allowed one MP on each committee.

“We made a decision to put women on key committees,” Ms. Mathyssen said. Her party purposely put women on the foreign affairs committee and also on international trade, given that the massive trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, is one of the most important issues facing the Commons for the NDP.

Ms. Mathyssen suggested that women are more pragmatic and work harder than their male counterparts. “We go in prepared … We’ve always had to be very efficient in terms of time management because of all the things women do.”

For Ms. Damoff, being the only woman on the public safety committee was a surprise. She had asked to be on the infrastructure committee. “When I first got appointed, I thought, ‘Wow, I’m the only woman on here.’” she said. But she quickly realized she could play an important role.

“I do bring a different perspective,” she said. Recently, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson appeared before her committee on issues around sexual harassment in the police force. She asked him what he was doing to promote women into leadership roles.

“The only way you change the culture in any organization, whether it is business or politics … is to have women in leadership roles,” she said about why she asked that question. “Not that men may not have thought of it. But it was just a different perspective I was bringing to the issue.”

Government House Leader Dominic LeBlanc recognizes that there are too few women on committees, but says the Prime Minister made the commitment to put women in leadership roles in government. “One objective is to encourage more women to run for nominations and get elected to Parliament,” he said. “This would be a direct way to increase the number of women serving on committees of the House.”

Nancy Peckford of Equal Voice, the non-partisan organization advocating for more elected women, says it’s important to have gender parity in cabinet, but the trick now is not to be complacent and think that women have somehow won.

“What this points to is that you have a House that is only 26-per-cent women … so, really, it comes down to electing more women,” she said.

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