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Parliament gets a makeover: An influx of young women could help change Canadian politics for good

The Ottawa Citizen By Nancy Peckford 6 May 2011

Image makeovers – large and small – in the world of politics have a long history: Preston Manning worked on lowering his vocal register; Hillary Clinton lost the headband; and Jack Layton abandoned his trademark orange tie. But this week’s election has arguably resulted in a radical makeover in the House of Commons.

The last Parliament boasted only 22 per cent women (68 women versus 240 men). Only five of these female MPs were under the age of 40, compared to 25 men, and Canada ranked 52nd in the world for its representation of women, the lowest in its history. The only female leader of a national party, Elizabeth May, held no seat and was virtually invisible on the national scene.

Oh, what a difference one election makes.

When Parliament re-convenes later this month, Canadians will see a distinctly different House. While the overall number of women elected has only risen by eight, the diversity and age range among women in Parliament will dramatically change.

Some Canadians may argue such change is unnecessary because MPs are elected to represent the interests of all of their constituents, regardless of gender. Yet, 90 years after the first female MP was elected, women indicate the perspectives they bring to Parliament -whether in committee, during debates in the House or at the cabinet table -are important.

The demise of the Bloc Québécois and Liberal parties has meant that many seasoned female MPs who had made their mark over several terms won’t be returning. The radically reduced caucus of the Bloc now includes only one woman, down from 14 in the last House. The Liberal party re-elected six women from last Parliament’s total of 19.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, have succeeded in electing eight more women, including two mothers of young children, a real estate agent and an orthopedic surgeon. They will join a small but strong contingent of female Conservatives MPs such as former ministers Lisa Raitt, Gail Shea and Rona Ambrose.

Green Party leader, Elizabeth May will finally have a voice in the House as the only female national party leader. Her commitment to change the tone of the House could certainly help to create an environment that many Canadians will welcome.

But the real story is the women of the NDP. More than half of their caucus is from Quebec (57), and of these newly elected MPs, 27 are women, many of them under the age of 30. This represents the single biggest influx of young women into the House of Commons in Canada’s history. It also represents one of its biggest opportunities, not to mention challenges.

Over the past decade in Equal Voice’s work with young women, we have continually heard them point to a significant disconnect between the issues they care about and what’s happening on the Hill. Many have a difficult time conjuring up the names of female MPs who have made a positive difference. Further, the heightened media scrutiny applied to younger female politicians such as Ruby Dhalla, Belinda Stronach and Ambrose, remains etched in their collective memories as a reason women should think twice about getting involved. Few tell us they want to stand for election.

With so many young women now about to sit in the House as representatives for their ridings, it’s likely that these impressions are about to change. Despite their young age, most have postsecondary degrees and a number are committed community activists. All of a sudden, not only has the face of the House got much younger, but the issues that motivate many women, young and old -including safer communities, the environment, the global gap between rich and poor, child care and education, to name just a few -are about to get more frequent play on the Hill.

American academic and former congressional candidate Jennifer Lawless has written extensively on what it takes to successfully recruit women into political life. Her findings reveal that women are much less likely to self-identify as candidates for fear that they lack sufficient experience, expertise or networks to succeed. The domination of men in the political sphere has meant fewer women see elected office as a place where they could make a real difference and one where their talents and skills are welcome.

The 41st parliament could change these notions for good. It may not only re-frame the game for younger women but serve to inspire many mid-career women, not to mention our daughters and nieces, to aspire to political life. To which Equal Voice would say, it’s about time.

Nancy Peckford is Executive Director of Equal Voice, a political junkie, and the mother of two young daughters.