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Green Party Leader Elizabeth May prepares to hold a news conference on her exclusion from the leaders debates in Vancouver on March 30, 2011. (DON MACKINNON/AFP/Getty Images)
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May prepares to hold a news conference on her exclusion from the leaders debates in Vancouver on March 30, 2011. (DON MACKINNON/AFP/Getty Images)

More women running this election - but many in hopeless races Add to ...

Women are better represented in this federal election than in previous campaigns, but many are running in ridings where their party doesn't stand a chance.

Equal Voice, a group that advocates for more women in Canadian politics, crunched numbers from declared candidates among major parties and found that, overall, women aren't as underrepresented as they have been in the past: Thirty-one per cent of all the candidates so far confirmed running among the five major parties are women. During the 2008 election, that figure was 29.6 per cent.

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Twenty-four per cent of the Conservative candidates so far are women, 33 per cent of Liberals, 38 per cent of NDP, 32 per cent of Bloc Québécois and 30 per cent of Green Party candidates.

But those proportions drop when it comes to the ridings that their party is actually likely to win: Only a fifth of what are considered the Tories' winnable ridings feature female candidates; that figure is 27 per cent for the Liberals, 30 per cent for the NDP and 36 per cent for the Bloc.

Equal Voice figured that any riding with an incumbent, or that was a close two-way race in the last election, or that featured a three-way race whose third candidate was within 15 percentage points of the winner in 2008, is considered "winnable." (Elizabeth May's Saanich-Gulf Islands riding, which she's trying to wrest from Tory incumbent Gary Lunn, did not qualify by that rubric.)

The Bloc was the only party whose proportion of likely female candidates rose once less-competitive ridings were winnowed out: 36 per cent of its 56 winnable ridings have female candidates running in them.

Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe said that's not an accident. He pointed out 75 per of women who ran for the party won their ridings in 2008.

"It's one thing to present someone when you know they're going to lose, just to have good stats at the beginning of the race. What I want to do is have a good stat at the end of the race," Mr. Duceppe said.

"We've had a good start, but the day we're 50-50, we'll call it a success."

On the one hand, says Equal Voice executive director Nancy Peckford, any increase is good news.

"We have improvement. So that's a big deal, because for a while there it was looking like the parties were flat-lining," she said. "When you have three parties running almost a third women, that critical mass is a key marker."

But it still indicates men are parties' go-to candidates for ridings they have a shot at winning.

"They want to go with what they view as their safer bet. And when you have more men in the system who a party knows, who a party's familiar with, who may have name recognition … the riding association often leans towards those with whom they're more familiar."

The Liberal Party was the only one whose female proportion is less than its 2008 numbers: Of the 245 candidates so far confirmed in their ridings, 33 per cent are women - down from 37 per cent of all candidates in 2008, when former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion made a concerted push to get women on the ballot.

That push is still there, said Winnipeg South Centre incumbent Anita Neville, the Liberals' status of women critic.

"It's been absolutely a priority for Mr. Ignatieff - a non-negotiable priority," she said, adding that many women are deterred from putting their names forward because they feel they lack the networks needed to get elected.

"That always continues to be a barrier, particularly for candidates who are new to the field and who are trying to establish themselves."

It's a problem for anyone who sees gender parity in Parliament as the ultimate goal, as it means there likely won't be a huge jump from the 22 per cent of the House now occupied by female MPs.

Nicole Demers counts herself among them. The Laval MP (who holds one of the study's incumbent "winnable" seats) helped author a two-year study the Bloc conducted among party grassroots, studying how to reach gender parity. And she remembers being a political hopeful watching CPAC and seeing only men - "those were the only models we had."

"It's because of a lack of networks; a lack of money; a lack of resources," she said. But she argued it's important for Canada's elected representatives to represent Canadians.

For NDP House Leader Libby Davies, the problem is as much what happens to women once they're in the Commons.

"Very often what I hear from young women is that they really feel they're interested in politics, but they feel sort of turned off the way politics plays out, the way it's done."

Follow on Twitter: @Perreaux

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