Women as Policy Makers: Local Initiative Mirrors Global Challenge

by Eric Greenway, Managing Director of Advancement at the YWCA Regina  

On March 22, 2012, sixteen women gathered in the living room of a Regina home to wrestle with how to increase the representation of women in political office, with a focus on the October Regina municipal election. The group included a current MLA; leaders from business, education, labour and the arts; former and potential political candidates; and YWCA staff and volunteers.

The conversation was lively, non-partisan, and pragmatic. The moderator pointed out that advancing the leadership of women and girls has been a core concern of the global YWCA movement over its 150-year history. As well as curbing the voices and concerns of women, the under-representation of women in government sends a powerful implied message to youth that men are more suited to leadership. In contrast, when women are empowered as decision-makers, they influence public policy in positive ways.

As a follow-up to that March meeting, YWCA facilitated the formation of an ad hoc network of 55 Regina women that met several times for education, networking, and support. Ten of the 55 became candidates in the municipal election—two for mayor, six for council, one for public school board, and one for separate school board—and two were elected, one to council and one to public school board. (Nine women who did not participate in the YWCA network were also elected—one to council, and four to each school board.) Others of the 55 joined campaign teams, or supported candidates in other ways.

For YWCA, it would be easy to see the result as disappointing. But a glance at global efforts to see more women elected to office suggests that incremental progress is the norm in most contexts. Parity is often achieved through long-term, multi-pronged approaches, including public awareness, policy initiatives, education of youth, and so on.

The International Parliamentary Union (IPU), an international organization of parliaments, has tracked the number of women elected to both upper and lower houses of parliaments around the world for 15 years. The percentage of seats held by women has almost doubled from 11.7% in 1997 to the current 20.2%, but the numbers are still woefully low. And there is no basis for self-congratulation on the part of Canadians—as of October 31, 2012, we rank 47th of 190 countries with 24.7% of House of Commons seats held by women. (The U.S. fares even worse at 82nd). And just 22% of Saskatchewan MLAs are women, according to the provincial chapter of Equal Voice.

Political prospects for women are dramatically better elsewhere. In Rwanda, 56% of seats in the lower house are held by women. And in the five Nordic countries, that statistic averages 41%.

A study prepared by IPU for a 2005 United Nations Expert Group Meeting highlighted the twenty countries that at that time had elected women to 30% or more of their parliamentary seats. About one-quarter of the twenty countries, including Rwanda, were deemed “post-conflict” situations, in which major national disruptions cleared the way to radical political shifts. The Nordic countries were seen as typical of “slow track” success, with change beginning slowly in the 1940s with women accounting for as few as 1.3% of legislators, then accelerating in the 1970s with broad social shifts, public awareness campaigns, economic growth, and the adoption of party quotas. Notably, the report observes that 80% of the top twenty highlighted countries used some form of quota, most commonly voluntary quotas for political parties, ranging from 30 to 40% of candidates.

If the choice is between incremental progress and rapid change brought about by social upheaval, it is likely most Canadians would choose the slow track. And there may be some justification for cautious optimism—in both Canada and the US.

First, a growing number of groups are actively engaged in supporting women’s political aspirations. To name just a few, Equal Voice Canada, with chapters in most provinces, has worked since 2001 to increase women’s representation in office. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities has undertaken a number of initiatives since 2005 to encourage women to run for municipal office. The FCM’s “Getting to 30%” project offers campaign schools, webinars, and a campaign manual, with a vision for increasing representation of women to the United Nations-recommended “critical mass” of 30%, viewed as the minimal percentage of women needed for public policy to reflect women’s concerns. Other groups are focused aggressively on the portrayal of women in the media—notably MissRepresentation.org and Name It, Change It.

Second, women had unprecedented profile and influence, both as voters and as candidates, in the 2012 U.S. election. Women’s issues (abortion, sexual violence, workplace equity) had more traction than ever during the campaign, and Obama’s re-election has been attributed in significant part to the numbers and preferences of women voters. A record number of women were elected to the U.S. Senate, and New Hampshire boasts the first all-women slate of governor, senators, and Congresswomen. While the overall proportion of seats held by women remains low, attracting women voters and addressing women’s issues will surely be seen as key to retaining or regaining political power in years to come.

Third, there are exciting signs of political engagement on the part of young women globally. The Taliban’s shooting attack on 14-year-old Malala Yousufzai for promoting girls’ education in Pakistan has sparked international outrage and captured the imagination of media and the public. Through the activism of three female high school students, a woman served as moderator of a U.S. presidential debate for the first time in twenty years. On a less heroic scale, YWCA Canada recently launched “Y Act Up”, a program designed to catalyze the civic engagement of 16- to 29-year-old women across the country, including in Regina.

Closing the gender gap in politics is a good in itself—exclusion of women is clearly an issue of social justice—but increased representation of women brings other benefits as well. The empowerment of women generally in a population is directly correlated with positive outcomes in child development. And when women are in policy-shaping positions, an emerging body of research demonstrates that real change results. Decisions reflect the priorities of women, and spending directed to social welfare increases.

In Canada, undeniable progress has been made to close the gap between men and women in the spheres of economic opportunity, education, and health—but a concerted effort from educators, political parties, the media, government, community organizations, and private citizens will be needed to fully include women in political office. The small-group conversations that begin in living rooms and classrooms, in Regina and many Canadian communities, will, with the commitment and hard work of both women and men, culminate in many women’s voices being fully heard at the highest levels of political power.