Laurin Liu participated in her first political panel on national television not long ago. It was an all-female panel, and the 21-year-old rookie NDP MP from Quebec was keen to debate the issues.
What happened next took her aback.
“I sit down and the first thing the host says is, ‘What a hot panel we’ve got tonight’ … and this is a male host. It’s my first national panel… ,” recalls Ms. Liu, who laughs about it now. “And then it just clicked. I’m in Ottawa and this is the way it is.”
Sadly, this is the way it still is for women on Parliament Hill.
Last May, after the general election, women’s groups were cheering the fact that 25 per cent of the MPs elected were female.
Ms. Liu, a McGill University student, was part of the Orange Wave that saw 59 NDP MPs – nearly half of whom are women – elected in Quebec. It was on the strength of the party’s victory in the province that it was propelled to official-opposition status.
Although the much-sought standard of 30-per-cent representation of women in the Commons has yet to be achieved, the 2011 result was considered a breakthrough. Women’s representation had stagnated around 20 per cent for two decades.
But it’s not just a numbers game. Ms. Liu, the party’s deputy environment critic and a quick study, still sees obstacles. She says she needs to have a thicker skin than her male colleagues. She feels she has to work harder, know her facts better and be more prepared than the male MPs “to win credibility.”
“I have seen my male colleagues interact with other male politicians,” she says. “I hate to say – it may just be just my imagination – but they seem to have an easier time at it. If you look and talk like a politician, then you are automatically given the credibility as a politician.”
Ms. Liu’s impressions of what it is to work as a woman in the Commons are not unlike those of women MPs from 20 years ago.
Two years before Ms. Liu was born, Mary Clancy was elected the Liberal MP for Halifax. She was one of only 39 female MPs among 176 men.
Re-elected in 1993, Ms. Clancy was one of 53 women MPs. This was a milestone election, too, in which female representation jumped to 18 per cent.
“It was good and we were delighted that we had increased our numbers but there still were amazing barriers … ” she recalls.
There was the female MP in 1993 who almost missed a vote because she was desperately searching around Centre Block for a bathroom. Unbelievably, there were no women’s facilities close to the chamber.
Ms. Clancy and her female colleagues found a simple solution – the very large men’s washroom, located just steps away from the House, was subdivided to accommodate a new facility for women MPs.
There was more – a female MP was mugged on the Hill, so more lighting was added, as was more security.
“It was things like that … very pedestrian stuff,” Ms. Clancy says.
But they were important victories, as was the Liberal women’s success in the late ’80s in having a presence in Question Period.
“If you want to get the women’s vote you’ve got to give us more,” Ms. Clancy recalls telling senior Liberals. “They hemmed and hawed and they whistled and sang but they didn’t do anything.”
The Liberal women boycotted Question Period one day – after that, they got their fair share of questions.
Women MPs may get their share of questions now but they’re not getting their fair share of power – Stephen Harper’s front bench isn’t exactly female-friendly. His most senior ministers – Defence, Justice, Finance, Treasury Board, Trade and Foreign Affairs – are all men.
“We absolutely need to ensure that women not only get elected but actually succeed and thrive in their elected positions,” says Nancy Peckford, executive director of Equal Voice, the non-partisan association that promotes women running for elected office.
She is confident this will happen over time, believing that over the next two elections women will achieve one-third representation in the Commons. With 407 women candidates, the most ever, running for federal office in last May’s election, Ms. Peckford predicts the country is on the “cusp of a breakthrough.”
“Canadians are in a different place in how they relate to women in politics,” she says, noting that polling data shows Canadians want more women in politics and have a “better understanding of what women bring to the table.”
Ms. Liu, meanwhile, is not expecting those barriers to come down any time soon.
“I think it will last throughout my lifetime and throughout the lifetime of my kids, unfortunately,” she says. “We are making progress but it is a slow process.”