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It's worth watching the documentary Flora: Scenes from a Leadership Convention to see how much has changed in 40 years (goodbye, plaid pantsuits and comb-overs!) and how much has not (Hello, female political leaders! Hello? Hello?).

In 1976, Flora MacDonald ran for the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives, one of the first women to vie for top spot of a major Canadian political party. She lost, you may recall, to Joe Clark. The documentary by Peter Raymont shows her as the remarkable, dignified and groundbreaking politician we knew her to be. (Ms. MacDonald died last month at the age of 89; the Prime Minister did not attend her funeral.)

"Because women do not perceive of themselves in the role of a leader," she said during her campaign, "it is difficult for them to perceive of another woman in the role of a leader. The more that position is tried for by women, the more it explodes that myth."

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Her adviser, savvy Eddie Goodman, was more pithy: "The country was ready for a woman leader. The party was not."

Was Canada ready for a female leader? Is it now? The evidence would suggest not. We had one, once, for several months 22 years ago, but Kim Campbell did not win an election to become prime minister. The days of the NDP's Audrey McLaughlin and Alexa McDonough are fading fast in the rear-view mirror.

How about this election? There's a lot of testosterone up there on those debate stages. At least the Green Party's Elizabeth May will be around for some of the debates (although not the one hosted by this newspaper).

The last federal election in 2011 was seen as a breakthrough because 25 per cent of MPs were women. I'd call it a breakthrough if it were 75 per cent; I'd settle for parity. Although the nominations for this election haven't closed yet, of the candidates that have been named for ridings, only 30 per cent are women, according to the advocacy group Equal Voice. In 55 ridings, there are no female candidates.

There is "still a lot of work to be done," Equal Voice's Nancy Peckford says on the phone from Ottawa. She talks about the "incumbency advantage" that accrues to electoral veterans. "Once we've achieved those breakthroughs, we are generally able to hold on to them. But it is infusing new women in the system that is the challenge."

The barriers to women's political participation are well studied. Some are internal, it can't be denied: Women are generally more anxious than male candidates about how they will be perceived on the campaign trail, and are perhaps put off by the belligerent dysfunctionality of the system.

But more important are the external factors: the exclusionary riding associations, the denial of long-standing support systems and financial backing.

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As a report this year from the World Bank's Women in Parliaments project put it, "While both men and women express concern about the many pitfalls of political campaigning, females are more worried over all, particularly about gender discrimination, the difficulty of fundraising, negative advertising, the loss of privacy, and not being taken seriously."

Female candidates receive fewer private donations, the report found, and women by a wide margin are underrepresented at the ministerial levels.

Recently, Ms. Campbell talked about a gender-quota system to ensure fairness in federal elections. This was met by predictable shrieks of outrage by people who think historically biased systems of governance will magically sort themselves out with the wave of some fairy godmother's wand. Make that fairy godfather.

While I don't agree with the former prime minister on the specifics of her suggestion (two candidates elected per riding, one male and one female), I think she is right about quotas. Quotas are not an anomaly; they are the norm in many parts of the world. In terms of women represented in political office, Canada ranks 46th out of 140 countries, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Many of the countries that do better than us have some formal system of promoting women into office, through reserved seats or candidates' lists or mentorship programs. Many of those countries use a proportional representation system, it's true, but there's not much we can do about that.

Almost 100 countries have some form of gender quotas in politics, whether legislated or voluntary, at the level of parliaments or at the level of party recruitment. Germany is one of them: It hasn't worked so badly there, has it?

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