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It’s up to this parliament to chart a different course for women on the Hill

The Hill Times by Nancy Peckford 25 April 2016

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel’s article about everyday sexism on the Hill in last week’s National Post is another sobering reminder of a male-dominated workplace in which women who occupy positions of power are met with varying degrees of hostility and/or ignorance far too often. This is not unique to Parliament Hill. Gender-biased behaviour and cultural norms, which undermine or diminish women’s influence in traditionally male fora, are commonplace and often quite resistant to change. And while it may be tempting to characterize the particular brand of sexism we see on the Hill as particularly egregious, I am not sure it is.

Fundamentally, though, it’s about respect. This is why, in 2014, EV launched its Hill-focused campaign #RespectHer inviting male and female MPs to commit to a more constructive environment. Clearly, the fact that women MPs and female staffers are not always accorded this respect—especially at this juncture in Canada’s history—is disturbing indeed. Tens of thousands of Canadians have legitimately elected the 88 women MPs in our national Parliament to represent their interests in Ottawa. These MPs should not face an uphill battle to carry out the mandate they’ve been given by constituents because of antiquated notions of how women should look, speak or conduct themselves. Canadians expect far better comportment by all MPs in the House.

But there is hope. Beyond the government’s appointment of a gender-balanced cabinet, a radical act—it seems—given that only five countries in the world have undertaken to do it, Equal Voice has been encouraged by the appointment of a high proportion of female chiefs of staff to federal ministers. Recognizing the key role these senior staff play in the life of a government, the gender diversity among this cohort is a step forward. We are cautiously optimistic that, along with more women in cabinet, it will contribute to a shift in the culture in the long term.

Another good sign is the current study at the House Affairs Committee which is examining the possibilities for more family friendly and inclusive measures. As one of the less high-profile committees on the Hill, it is leading the ambitious task of dissecting 150 years of parliamentary tradition and finding new ways forward. There is no doubt that it’s a daunting task for all involved. The debate about options risks becoming partisan, which would be unfortunate given that, regardless of party, women—and men—are already paying a high price for a gruelling schedule, long commutes and the heightened demands of constituents to be visible, engaged and responsive in the riding.

Expectations of MPs have changed since the early decades of Canada’s Parliament. In EV’s appearance earlier last week, we proposed some measures that would enable MPs to fully optimize their performance. They include reducing the weekly commutes for MPs given the size of the country, fully leveraging technology, ensuring staff supports are sufficient for the average MP—as well as making accommodations for MPs who are needed for critical phases of care-giving at the beginning and end of life. These points were not lost on Liberal MP and committee chair Larry Bagnell, MP for the Yukon who has a young family and whose weekly commute can be up to 28 hours.

Nor are they for NDP MP Christine Moore who recently appeared as a witness. Exceptional already for giving birth during the campaign and then going on to secure her seat for the New Democrats in Quebec, Moore is now navigating an institution that is clearly not designed for the mother of a young child. Remarkably, the Parliament Hill daycare doesn’t accept children before 18 months so Moore has been left to cobble together a piecemeal set of care-giving arrangements, none of which are ideal.

NDP MP Christine Moore, pictured in her Confederation Building office with her baby Daphnée. (The Hill Times photograph by Jean-Loup Doudard)

Every Friday while Parliament is sitting, Moore makes the seven-plus hour drive back to her riding in northern Quebec, often alone and sometimes in bad weather. It’s no small feat, especially when you have a restless baby in tow, have just worked a gruelling week and—as a nursing mother—have likely not slept through the night for some time.

Moore is asking that MPs who give birth or become the primary care-giver to an infant be given the capacity to largely work out of the riding for the first six months. The ability to work from the riding could also apply to MPs confronting the death of a parent, spouse or terminally ill child. Parliamentary activity would have to be handled remotely through video-conferencing and potentially electronic voting, except perhaps for confidence motions.

Both New Zealand and Australia have introduced a form of proxy voting for these sorts of circumstances. While it may be easy to dismiss Moore’s challenges as unique to her, with a notable number of women (and men) under the age of 40 in this Parliament, it is likely to come up again. The question is—will Parliament be prepared? Without mechanisms to ensure that women at all life stages are welcome in this institution, the fear is that many will continue to take a pass on standing for federal office.

Canadians are eager to vote for politicians with whom they can make a connection—and who can relate to the day-to-day struggles we all confront. Nothing humanizes a person like parenting and other forms of care-giving. Most Canadians vote on the strength of a political party’s vision for the future—and future generations. To ignore the particularities of those MPs who are confronted with intensive care-giving responsibilities is not just an insult to them, but to their children, families and thousands of constituents. It will be up to this Parliament to chart a different course. To succeed, MPs need to show goodwill—and respect for what their colleagues are bringing to the table.

by Nancy Peckford
National spokesperson for Equal Voice, a national multi-partisan organization dedicated to electing more women in Canada.