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Expert says SheLeads’ political push shouldn’t focus on ‘shortcomings’

CBC with Melanee Thomas 26 July 2018

Another election period and yet another initiative to get women on the ballot. But this time, a push called the SheLeads Foundation is looking to whisk women under the conservative banner.

It’s being backed by former Conservative party leader Rona Ambrose and Laureen Harper, wife of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Associate professor of political science Melanee Thomas at the University of Calgary spoke to the Homestretch about her thoughts on the new initiative and what it might take for meaningful gender parity in Canadian politics.

The following is an edited excerpt of that interview.

Q: What do you think of this new initiative by Rona Ambrose and Laureen Harper?

A: In general, I’m always supportive of initiatives that are designed to bring more women into politics. My issue with this one as it’s framed is that, at least from what I heard, much of the emphasis is on individual women’s shortcomings. And it’s a bit of a cynical way to phrase it. But when people say women just lack the confidence, women lack the money, they lack the connections, the implication is that women’s chronic, persistent and quite severe underrepresentation in politics in Canada is about women being inadequate, as opposed to a systemic problem with the way that we do politics.

Q: What is the problem, systemically, do you think?

A: The easiest way to sum it up is at parties, political parties, they nominate all the candidates for us. I have research where we find that women are more likely to be nominated as sacrificial lambs in places where their party doesn’t have a chance to win. And that men are consistently nominated in safe seats, even when those safety nets are open, and they don’t have an incumbent. So this isn’t necessarily an incumbency thing. Parties are typically more likely, all of them, to nominate men in places where they strongly expect that they’re going to win, rather than women.

Q: There have been initiatives in the past, like the organization Equal Voice, aimed at recruiting more women into politics. How effective has that been?

A: Equal Voice is good. But it can’t ever be as effective as a political party, because Equal Voice isn’t doing the nominating. I think the most useful thing that Equal Voice does is it calls on parties to make a commitment to the proportion of women that they’re going to nominate every election.

The parties that do well typically say, “well, we’re not the problem, because we’re doing so much better than everybody else,” even though they’re nowhere near 50 per cent. And some parties say, “oh, you know, women should have equality of opportunity.”

Q: So what can parties do to make sure they actually succeed in recruiting women to seats of power?

A: My favourite example is actually Stephen Harper. Between 2006 and 2008, the number of women nominated for Conservative candidacies, in a very short period of time, increased dramatically. And the only explanation for this is that the leader wanted it so the leader got it. So I look at party leaders, and I say, “where’s your commitment to this because the party will do what the leader wants them to do.” Once the leader actually commits to this, then organizers will get creative and they will have the urgency and the drive to actually go out and find women in each local area.

Q: Justin Trudeau has said repeatedly that he was all about equality from both a gender perspective and a diversity perspective. Do you think he’s been effective in getting that done?

A:  I mean, I would say that a parity cabinet is really quite important. I wouldn’t want to diminish that. But the thing that I would note — and I know I am much more critical on the Liberal Party of Canada in 2015 than many of my colleagues. But it’s not lost on me that in that election, the Liberals nominated a greater proportion of women than they elected. And the Liberals were winning seats that they didn’t anticipate to win in 2015. They swept all of Atlantic Canada. I don’t think anybody anticipated that. And so I take that as an indicator that a lot of women might have been nominated as candidates, but they were nominated in places where the party really wasn’t competitive at all, even in a typical election.

In that sense, I would look at every party leader and say, you know, there’s no good reason for women to be underrepresented at any rate less than parity. Like there really just isn’t an argument that’s persuasive in our in contemporary time for that.

Q: Do you have any concerns about parties simply trying to meet quotas?

A:  It depends on how they’ve actually met the quota. An insincere quota, as in: “We just need to get a certain proportion of women that’s less than 50 per cent,” is going to be one where women will run as sacrificial lambs.

When we look at this and other democracies or parties that actually do this sincerely, what ends up happening is that the overall credentials of the elected representatives go up because women with impressive credentials are displacing men who are more mediocre.

I can understand why some people might be a little bit concerned about quotas. But the concern really should be for the people who are less impressive that want to hold onto their positions, as opposed to people thinking that somehow women who are not impressive and don’t actually have these skills are somehow being brought in.