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women in politics

Stephanie McLean, the NDP MLA for Calgary-Varsity, is the first Alberta MLA to be pregnant while in office. She is expecting her first child in February.Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

Women in Politics is a new regular column by veteran political journalist Jane Taber. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Stephanie McLean was elected to the Alberta legislature on May 5 as the NDP MLA for Calgary-Varsity; she's also pretty sure her son was conceived that same day.

And as she is about to give birth – Feb. 7 is the due date – the 28-year-old politician is also about to make history as the first MLA in Alberta to have a baby while in office.

As the rules stand now, Ms. McLean could be penalized for having a child – her pay could be docked if she misses more than 10 sitting days. But her pregnancy is forcing changes to those outdated rules in a legislature that has never had to deal with a young woman politician and her newborn baby.

"I found out I was pregnant and started Google searching … and found out very quickly there was nothing to rely upon," says Ms. McLean, who is also a lawyer.

There is no maternity leave for MLAs; they do not qualify for employment insurance. This is also the case federally for members of Parliament.

Alberta is not unique in rethinking how its elected chamber should work. In Ottawa, Justin Trudeau's government is looking at ways of bringing the working conditions and rules in the House of Commons – which were designed for men and by men – into the 21st century.

Prime Minister Trudeau has asked Government House Leader Dominic LeBlanc to work with the opposition to make Parliament Hill more gender-sensitive, and so he is now looking at abolishing Friday sittings, scrapping scheduled votes that usually occur after 6 p.m. (perhaps voting in the afternoon after Question Period), and starting the work day in the Commons an hour earlier, at 9 a.m.

These changes would allow MPs with families, some of whom live in Ottawa, to get home for dinner. Abolishing the half-day Friday sittings would allow MPs to get back to their ridings, work with constituents and be at home with their families for the weekend, he says.

"As a general rule, we're the only legislature in the country that regularly sits five days a week, and we're the legislature to which the people have to travel the farthest," Mr. LeBlanc notes.

He hopes to have changes by spring. In last October's election, 88 women were elected to the House of Commons, representing 26 per cent of the members in the chamber and a tiny increase from the 2011 result.

"There are younger and younger members of Parliament on all sides, and we certainly want to encourage more women to run," says Mr. LeBlanc, noting that these are among the "systemic barriers" that discourage people from running.

Lisa Raitt supports getting rid of Friday sittings. For nearly seven years, Ms. Raitt, the Conservative MP for Milton, sat in Stephen Harper's cabinet. She was one of the few ministers with young children, and during those years she says she gave up trying to make time for friends, dividing her life between caring for her two sons, who were seven and four years old when she was first elected, and her job.

"Looking back on it, had I known, I don't know whether or not I would have made the leap [into politics]," she says. "So once you're in it, you've got to deal with whatever the situation is. I don't regret it … although I have no friends. My friends are my children and my staff."

Not having to be in Ottawa for Friday makes a big difference to her. "It allows people to get home to their ridings and to do constituency work on Friday, which was the hard thing to fit into the schedule," she says.

Ontario's legislature is ahead of the game – changes were made nearly a decade ago as a result of a push from Progressive Conservative Ottawa MPP Lisa MacLeod, who had just had a baby.

The legislature did not sit on Fridays, so that wasn't an issue. But child care was, as were late-night sittings, which required Ms. MacLeod to physically be in the chamber. In addition, the workday in the legislature began at 1 p.m.

"I just didn't think it was reflective of modern-day life," says Ms. MacLeod, who adds her circumstances forced her to become an "unlikely feminist" when she was first elected in a by-election in 2006. Her husband took a year off of work to look after their daughter.

As a rookie opposition MPP, she didn't have a lot of clout, but found a sympathetic ear from the Liberal government at the time. The sitting hours were changed – the legislature started earlier, and that mostly eliminated the night-time hours. Changing tables were installed in the washrooms, and a high chair was put in the restaurant in the basement of the main legislative building.

"I think we still have a ways to go, but we are much better now," Ms. MacLeod says.

Like Ms. MacLeod, Alberta's McLean describes herself as an "accidental trailblazer." Her surprise pregnancy – she and her husband are thrilled about it – has provided an opportunity to modernize.

For example, the NDP government is now planning to change the law that would dock an MLA's pay for missing more than 10 sitting days. "It is meant to be punitive," says Ms. McLean. "These are the acceptable reasons – bereavement, illness or public duty. Those are acceptable reasons, but having a child is not. That is archaic legislation."

In addition to that, NDP House Leader Brian Mason says the government has already tried to bring in "family-friendly" workplace hours.

The legislature used to begin sitting at 1:30 p.m., but the NDP changed that to 9 a.m. as a way to eliminate late-night sittings. It didn't work. The opposition filibustered on a contentious bill, and the late hours continued. Mr. Mason says they need to take another look at that issue.

Nancy Peckford of Equal Voice, the non-partisan organization advocating for more elected women, says it's astonishing how basic these changes are, compared to other workplaces. But it's a start.

"Legislatures function in a regulatory void … [it] has meant that they aren't compelled, as many other industries would be, to catch up to the times," she says.

For Ms. Peckford, so much more needs to be done to encourage women to run for office. "While the structural/institutional realities are often a significant disincentive for women," she says, "it's the culture of politics that is equally demotivating.

"The scandals, the lack of transparency, the relentless gamesmanship have all contributed to the erosion of respect for elected representatives – and has led to an unforgiving arena for those who do jump in."