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Women, Power, and
Barriers to Politics

An Analysis of Existing Barriers to Access to Political Offices for Women in Canada and How to Address Them

JULY 2024

My name is Kowmitha Satkunarajan. I am a second-year student at the University of Toronto majoring in International Development and Political Science.

I became a UofMosaic Fellow to critically engage with different social challenges and learn alongside my peers what we can do to address these challenges in our communities. 


My research paper focuses on the barriers to accessing political spaces for woman-identifying folk. I chose to do this article because of my interest and studies in people, policy, and politics. As a woman of colour myself, I have run into many of these barriers and I sought to understand what they were and what we can do to overcome them. This article, in line with UofMosaic's themes of inclusion and change-making, lays out some of the most significant barriers that exist and what we can do to address them. 
 

I hope that by reading this article, people will better  understand the challenges women seeking to enter politics face not only in Canada but around the world, and understand what they can do about it.

AUTHOR

Kowmitha Satkunarajan

UofMosaic Fellow

Cohort: 2021 - 2023

kowmitha.jpg

AN ANALYSIS OF EXISTING BARRIERS TO ACCESS TO POLITICAL OFFICES FOR WOMEN IN CANADA

In October 2017, New Zealand swore in their youngest ever Prime Minister. Jacinda Ardern, whose term lasted six years before resignation, is now an international icon and role model for thousands of young women and girls across the globe (New Zealand History, 2023). In January 2019, the United States of America swore in the youngest woman ever elected to Congress (Anderson, 2021). Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sent shockwaves throughout local, national, and international politics for her strength and political fortitude. In October 2019, Canada swore in a woman of colour who would proceed to occupy the roles of Minister of Public Services and Procurement and Minister of National Defence. During her terms, Anita Anand faced not only a global pandemic that forced thousands inside, but also the sudden Russian invasion of Ukraine. She went from a new politician in Canadian politics to the Minister on everyone’s minds as we faced the fallout of current global events (House of Commons, 2022).


Over the past few years, we have started to see a shift in the political sphere, not only here in Canada, but across the globe. Increasingly more women are tossing their metaphorical hats in and running for elected seats at all levels of government. In the last election, Canada saw a 1-1.5% increase in women-identifying and gender-diverse folks running for office across the major parties, moving from 42% to 43-44% (Dunham, 2021). Despite this increase, we still see women underrepresented when it comes to election outcomes and the make-up of Canada’s Parliament, with women only comprising 30% of Parliament (Bonikowska, 2022). 


In this article, I showcase the importance of women in politics and analyse the current social/systemic barriers that hinder their increased participation. By analysing these barriers, this article then recommends how to address these barriers, ultimately showcasing why having more women in politics is critical for Canada’s long term growth and vitality.

DEFINITIONS

To start, it is important to make clear the key definitions that are relevant to this piece. For one, “barriers to access” can refer to any limitation caused by physical, social, geographic and financial restrictions. Women are also not the only folks who face such gendered barriers to politics. Gender-diverse folks who identify as other genders outside of the dominant expressions that we see in politics today face similar barriers. This article will primarily be focusing on women-identifying folks, however, it is important to note that the core principles mentioned in the piece can be applied to others who face the same or similar barriers.

WHY WOMEN?

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals that were put forward by the United Nations provide a framework as to why we should champion for more representation of women in politics. These Goals identify key measurements in various areas that serve as a framework for what the “ideal developed nation should look like” (United Nations, 2015). In order to accomplish the Goals as outlined and advance humanity forward through sustainable means, a new form of politics needs to be introduced at the global level. Particularly, a form of politics that considers not only the economic development of a nation but the quality of life, equity, and means we go about accomplishing national goals. Growing evidence suggests that when women are elected to office, they make a notable difference in public policy. The policies that women develop showcase an increased care towards various underrepresented groups of people and are cognizant of the greater needs of individual communities, rather than lumping every need in one, often over-simplified, interpretation of what the people want or need (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2008). There is also a stronger focus on families, gender equity, and the quality of lives of the residents and citizens. From emphasis on ensuring clean drinking water in communities in India to the work being done to reduce inequities on the municipal to federal level here in Canada, having equal representation of women in power has resulted in better outcomes for communities worldwide (UN Women, 2013). Women in politics, regardless of political party, bring a unique understanding and empathy towards unmet needs in society that, when coupled with current advancements in Parliament, opens the door for democracy to better support its people.

WHAT ARE THE BARRIERS?

The barriers that impact women’s political participation in Canada exist in a number of unique ways spanning all the provinces and territories. These barriers include individual barriers, community/social barriers, and political barriers (Thomas, 2013). Historically, women have always faced challenges to accessing politics. Having been barred from engaging in politics eventually led to women's suffrage which then evolved to a slow progression of women occupying more positions of power. Lack of education surrounding what, when, why and how to get involved politically often sows seeds of doubt in a woman's ability to deliver in local political spheres.

Currently, the greatest barrier is the perception of women taking on these roles both individually and by society. There remains a common understanding that women are unable to work in such public-facing roles because of social expectations of women. For example, the increasing need for two incomes to support a household, coupled with the continued expectation of women taking on the majority of the housework and childcare, poses a significant barrier for a woman to enter politics. When combined with a lack of education and clarity surrounding how someone is nominated for an election, how to run a campaign and how to build a political portfolio, it can be very overwhelming for a woman who wants to pursue public politics as a career (Melanee, 2013). Many instead choose to work behind the scenes or turn towards other career paths and disengage from formal politics. Additionally, entering any field where one has historically been excluded can be a challenge. When social conditioning directed women away from certain paths, breaking free from such narratives demands a hefty price to pay. This can range from social shame, family troubles, etc (Melanee, 2013). For some people who live in disenfranchised locations, such as in poverty, unable to access economic resources or unable to overcome various life circumstances, entering politics is out of the question. The cost associated is just too high. It is important to remember that going for public office is a privilege in and of itself.

WHAT CAN BE DONE?

There have been many proposed solutions to addressing these barriers. Education continues to dominate in the ways we seek to open pathways for women to be involved in politics. Making information available on how to run for office, what the life of a politician looks like, and a general demystifying of politics is essential for removing the notion that politics is something only for men or the elites of society. Addressing the stigma of women in power as a whole is also necessary in order to shift the narrative away from how men are the rulers and women are the followers and instead, toward narratives where men, women and gender diverse folks are equal contributors in all aspects of society.. In addition, education on how campaigns work, what politics is like compared to how it is presented in media, and investing in campaign/political to current school curriculums are but a few of the ways we can go about making politics more accessible for women. These recommendations fall in line with the few of the SDGs, in particular, Sustainable Development Goal 4: Quality Education, Goal 5: Gender Equality, and Goal 16: Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions which all lend themselves towards making politics more accessible to a wide array of people worldwide (United Nations, 2015).

NOTABLE HISTORICAL PRECEDENCES

When looking at the history of what is currently known as Canada, we can learn much from the original Indigenous caretakers of the land. In the past, Indigenous women and men operated in a balanced set of power that supported the continued growth of Indigenous communities (Hansen, n.d). Women were admired for their spiritual/mental strength. Men were admired for their spiritual/physical strength. And both were able to complement each other so much so that people were able to transcend these gender binaries and operate not based on gender specific roles but rather, community-specific roles that sought justice and fairness for all. Pregnancy and childcare, which are often used against women in their careers, once upheld and even strengthened the power and abilities women had in society (Hansen, n.d). By educating people on the abilities and strengths that men, women and gender diverse people can bring to political offices and providing the resources necessary to explore such a career path, we secure Canada’s future as a just and fair democracy.

CONCLUSION

In short, more can and should be done to increase the number of women running for office at all levels of government. Sustainable Development Goals 4: Quality Education, Goal 5: Gender Equality, and Goal 16: Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions are good goalposts towards measuring how we as a society can evolve towards becoming a force where people, regardless of gender, can pursue these careers and ensure the success of future generations. By learning from the past and applying those lessons to our present, we create a future where if a woman wants to run for public office, there is no fear nor doubt as to whether such a candidate can be capable of occupying that seat in the House. Role models like Jacinda Ardern, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Anita Anand will not be the last women making an impact in this world. Through a collective effort, we will soon see the rise of other strong women in public office working to ensure a just and fair nation for all.

REFERENCES

  1. “The 17 Goals | Sustainable Development.” United Nations. United Nations. Accessed October 15, 2022. https://sdgs.un.org/goals.

  2. Anderson, Kirsten. “Who Is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?” Google Books. Penguin Workshop, 2021. 

  3. Bonikowska, Aneta. "Who are Canada's legislators? Characteristics and gender gaps among members of legislative bodies. Government of Canada, Statistics Canada, September 28, 2022. https://doi.org/10.25318/36280001202200900003-eng.

  4. Dunham, Jackie. “Highest Percentage Ever of Female and Gender-Diverse Candidates Running in This Election.” CTVNews. CTV News, September 2, 2021. https://www.ctvnews.ca/politics/federal-election-2021/highest-percentage-ever-of-female-and-gender-diverse-candidates-running-in-this-election-1.5570913?cache=%3FclipId%3D89563.

  5. Editors, Biography.com. “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television, May 13, 2021. https://www.biography.com/political-figure/alexandria-ocasio-cortez.

  6. “Facts and Figures: Women's Leadership and Political Participation.” UN Women – Headquarters. Accessed January 15, 2023. https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/leadership-and-political-participation/facts-and-figures#_edn17.

  7. “The Facts: Women in Leadership.” Canadian Women's Foundation, June 21, 2022. https://canadianwomen.org/the-facts/women-and-leadership-in-canada/.

  8. Hanson, Erin. “Marginalization of Aboriginal Women.” indigenousfoundations. Accessed December 15, 2022. https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/marginalization_of_aboriginal_women/.

  9. “The Honourable Anita Anand.” Prime Minister of Canada. Accessed December 15, 2023. https://pm.gc.ca/en/cabinet/honourable-anita-anand.

  10. “Jacinda Ardern.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., January 25, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jacinda-Ardern.

  11. “Jacinda Ardern.” RSS, January 25, 2023. https://nzhistory.govt.nz/people/jacinda-ardern.

  12. Melanee, Thomas. “Barriers to Women's Political Participation in Canada.” HeinOnline, 2013. https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.journals%2Funblj64&i=228.

  13. “Proportion of Seats Held by Women in National Parliaments (%).” The World Bank. Accessed November 2, 2022.

https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SG.GEN.PARL.ZS.

14. Trimble, Linda, Jane Arscott, and Manon Tremblay. “Stalled.” Google Books. UBC Books, 2013.

15. “Why Women in Politics - National Democratic Institute.” Accessed December 15, 2022. https://www.ndi.org/sites/default/files/Handout%204%20-%20Why%20Women

%20in%20Politics.doc.

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