Female, seeking public office? Better try Sweden

By Brian Lagh
Published March 7th 2003 in The Toronto Globe
Ottawa - Women seeking public office have a better chance of finding it in Sweden, South Africa, Pakistan and 32 other countries than they have in Canada.

A new study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union has found that Canada finishes 36th among 182 nations, with 20.6 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons filled by women.

Of 301 Canadian seats, 62 are represented by women.

The figures are well behind the 45.3 per cent posted by first-place Sweden and just below that of Nicaragua, which ranks 35th at 20.7 per cent. Other nations that finished ahead of Canada included Denmark, the Netherlands, Costa Rica, Iceland, Spain, Latvia, Bulgaria and Australia.

"It surprises us," said Alessandro Motter, an official with the IPU at the United Nations. "It looks like you have some work to do."

A Canadian expert on women's representation said she was shocked by the numbers.

"That's just appalling. There's no other word for it," said Donna Dasko, senior vice-president with Environics Research and a member of Equal Voice, an organization dedicated to increasing female representation in legislatures.

"The profile of this issue has just fallen."

Ms. Dasko noted that many Canadian parties provide some incentives to encourage women to run. She added, however, that party leaders may have to start appointing women to increase the numbers.

The IPU, which has its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, is the international organization of parliaments of sovereign states, and it is charged with fostering exchanges among parliaments from around the world.

The study found that Western democracies have generally lagged behind the developing world in terms of women holding public office. For example, the female membership of Britain's House of Commons is 17.9 per cent, giving it a ranking of 49th, while the United States has a ranking of 59th, with women holding 14.3 per cent of seats in the House of Representatives.

"In Western democracies, the trend is uneven although generally disappointing," the report's authors wrote.

At the same time, developing countries are starting to climb up the list. Pakistan's legislature has a female membership of 21.1 per cent, up 18 percentage points from earlier showings; this gives it a ranking of 32nd.

Quota laws that reserve 60 seats in Pakistan's National Assembly were the main reason for the increase, the report's authors said.

"In Pakistan, encouraging women to stand as candidates and to vote has been an important struggle in more conservative parts of the country, where female participants have had to defy local rulings that prohibited them from voting."

The report added, however, that quotas do not always work.

In France, a law that reduces election subsidies for those parties that do not put aside half their nominations for women has seen disappointing results. The last French election resulted in only a 1.3-percentage-point increase in female representatives. France's assembly ranked 65th among the list, with 12 per cent of its representatives women.

Not all the nations that outplaced Canada on the list are Western-style democracies. China, for example, ranks ahead of Canada with 21.8 per cent, while Vietnam is well up on the list at 27.3 per cent.

Generally, those countries that lead the pack tend to have systems of proportional representation, in which members are elected depending upon the overall votes their parties receive. For example, a party receiving 50 per cent of the votes receives 50 per cent of the MPs, chosen from a list drawn up by the individual parties. Those lists often include a minimum number of women.

Under the Canadian first-past-the-post system, MPs are elected in head-to-head battles, offering no guarantee that women will be elected.

Liberal MP Carolyn Parrish, past chair of the party's women's caucus, said Canada should consider a hybrid system of first-past-the-post and proportional representation to increase the numbers of women in Parliament.