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federal election 2015

A landslide for the Liberals, a glacial creep forward for women in Parliament.

Canadian voters elected 88 female MPs last night, putting female representation in the House at 26 per cent – a 1-per-cent increase over 2011.

That's a new record worthy of tepid applause: still well short of the 30 per cent watermark that the United Nations suggests leads to a shift in policy and practice in government. And it won't do much to improve Canada's 50th-place ranking out of 190 countries on proportion of national-level female politicians, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international organization of parliaments – particularly since other countries have made much larger strides on this issue.

(As of last night, incidentally, the House of Commons was officially listing the female MP tally at 89. Unfortunately, this was a case of mistaken gender: re-elected Conservative MP Bev Shipley is not a woman.)

Full coverage of Federal Election 2015

But a Justin Trudeau victory means there will be a second, arguably more impressive, statistic, assuming the Liberals keep a key campaign commitment: For the first time, Canada will have a 50-50 gender split in cabinet. How senior those female cabinet posts will be is another question; the Liberals saw 50 women elected, representing 27 per cent of the party's caucus, according to numbers compiled by Grace Lore, a researcher with Equal Voice, a non-partisan group that works to elect more women in Canada.

But the results overall are disappointing, given that going into the election, the potential existed for women to make more significant gains. Candidates skewed younger, and the combination of 30 additional ridings and a number of high-profile retirements meant more new candidates had the advantage of running without an incumbent. But when support for the NDP collapsed, it dragged down the fortunes of its female candidates, who accounted for an unprecedented 43 per cent of the party's candidates.

The Liberals by comparison had 31 per cent female candidates. The Conservatives fielded less than 20 per cent, a slight drop from the last election.

At this rate, political scientists say it will be 100 years before Parliament verges on gender parity.

A key hurdle is that the main parties are still not putting forward enough female candidates, says Louise Carbert, a Dalhousie University political scientist. This year, women accounted for one-third of the 1,427 candidates running for the five main parties, but many of them were running for the Green Party or the Bloc Quebecois, with little to no chance of winning their riding. The increase in female representation has mostly happened in cities – to improve representation, more women need to win in the country's rural ridings.

Other countries have adopted formal party quotas, for instance, to improve female representation – a measure complicated by Canada's localized nominations and first-past-the post system.

While there have been a number of studies making the case for a switch to some level of proportional representation, in which at least a portion of MPs could be elected from gender-balanced party lists, changing the political system is not a "magic bullet," says Prof. Carbert. On its own, it doesn't seem appear to be the deciding factor, she says. Rather, it's a combination of societal factors that played a larger role in countries such as Sweden and Denmark, which have the highest female representation in the Western world: most significantly the dominance of left-leaning parties, but also an egalitarian society and acceptance of non-traditional gender roles.

On those points, Canadian society is shifting in terms of gender attitudes, and last night's result was also a slide to the political left. And there has been some progress at the provincial level of government (though less so in municipal politics), showcased with the unprecedented roster of female premiers over the last few years.

As Nancy Peckford, the executive director for Equal Voice points out, however, those female leaders, tended to come to power as long shots, or when their party's fortunes were faltering – what researchers call "the glass cliff," the trend for organizations to be more open to trying out women leaders when times are rough.

But female representation shouldn't wax and wane with political circumstances. Increasing candidates can be influenced both by formalized measures, such as those adopted by the NDP, and a tacit commitment from the party leader, says Carbert. "Some parties – and leaders – just want to make it happen faster than others."

That's why the upcoming cabinet decisions will be important, a chance for the new prime minister to put women in key positions, where they can be the face and voice of the Liberal majority government.

Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau represents a new generation in power, one raised during a time of big gender shifts at home and work. What that means for Canadian women is yet to be seen.

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