Lydia Miljan is an associate professor of political science at the University of Windsor.
The Liberal Party of Canada has put forward an ambitious plan to reform parliamentary governance. Among the 32 proposals is the promise that "a Liberal cabinet will have an equal number of women and men." Laudable as that is, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau might find it a difficult promise to keep if he were to become prime minister.
The United Nations sets a minimum benchmark of 30 per cent women to ensure a "critical mass of parliamentarians." Canadian legislatures are below that threshold, at 24 per cent. Only four provinces and territories exceed the minimum threshold, with British Columbia leading at 36.4 per cent, followed by Ontario with 35.5 per cent, and Alberta with 34.8 per cent (each province has a female premier). The federal government ranks eighth on the list with 25 per cent of MPs being women.
In making decisions about cabinet appointments, prime ministers and premiers do not have the whole of their legislature to choose from, but are limited to those from the party that wins the most seats. Viewing women's success this way illustrates that Alberta, Ontario and British Columbia not only have more women elected overall, but the governing party also has more than 30 per cent female members. In Alberta, 48 per cent of the NDP caucus is female. The Liberal governments in Ontario and British Columbia each have about one-third female members. For the federal Conservatives, the pool of female parliamentarians is only 22 per cent.
Currently, 66 women hold cabinet positions in all federal, provincial and territorial governments, representing 22 per cent of all executive positions in Canadian government. The new Alberta government has the highest proportion of female cabinet ministers, at 50 per cent. The B.C. cabinet comes second, with 45 per cent women. The federal government and four provinces have women in about one-third of the cabinet positions (Nova Scotia, 33 per cent; Quebec, 32 per cent; Manitoba, 32 per cent; federal government, 31 per cent; Ontario, 30 per cent).
Yet other provinces and territories fall below the average. For example, Nunavut, with nine cabinet positions, has only two women; Saskatchewan, with 18 positions, has only four women. More problematic are PEI, Yukon and Newfoundland and Labrador, each of which have only one female member of cabinet; the Northwest Territories has none.
Part of the problem with the promise of gender parity in cabinet is a lack of supply. While women are elected in every legislature, not all of them are elected to the governing party, thus reducing the supply of potential cabinet members. No government party in Canada has 50 per cent women in its caucus. (The closest is Alberta's New Democrats, with 48 per cent women; the lowest is Newfoundland's Conservative government, with 7 per cent women in caucus.)
The federal Liberal caucus currently has 10 women and 19 men. While there is a higher proportion of women in that caucus than on the Conservative government side (at 34 per cent), the Liberals still fall short of 50 per cent. And of the 275 confirmed Liberal candidates in the upcoming election, only 32 per cent are women.
Many governments overcome the supply problem by appointing more women than the strict proportion of females available to them. For example, the federal Conservative caucus is 22 per cent female, but 31 per cent of the cabinet are women. Similarly, B.C.'s Liberal caucus is 33 per cent female, but women hold 45 per cent of cabinet positions. Only five provincial and territorial governments have a lower proportion of women in cabinet compared with the governing caucus. In Ontario, 34 per cent of the Liberal caucus is female, yet women hold 30 per cent of cabinet positions, including the premier.
Government leaders have long used cabinet as a means of representing varied interests in decision making. They weigh the skills and attributes of potential cabinet members against other factors, such as balancing internal political dynamics, rewarding and retaining competent colleagues, regional representation and, in many cases, gender.
The problem isn't that premiers and prime ministers haven't been appointing women to important cabinet positions. It is that fewer women than men are elected to Canadian legislatures in the first place.