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Equal Voice goes to Washington, D.C.

The Hill Times by Raylene Lang-Dion 19 May 2014

In the global ranking of countries based on the percentage of elected women to national legislatures, Canada places 55th and the United States 84th.

On one measure at least, Canada ranks higher than the U.S.—but it’s still a questionable achievement. In the global ranking of countries based on the percentage of elected women to national legislatures, Canada places 55th and the United States 84th.

Equal Voice travelled to Washington last week with several representatives of Canadian organizations interested in electing greater numbers of women in Canadian politics. Hosted by the US State Department International Visitors’ Leadership Program, Equal Voice met with more than 20 high-level American political thought leaders and advocates. During these meetings, we discussed our respective countries’ best practices for electing women and shared insights into how to effectively tackle the persistent challenges women face.

With the percentage of elected women in both countries hovering—on average—in the teens to mid 20s-with few exceptions- and considering the resurgence of sexist language that regularly characterizes female politicians in Canada and the U.S. both—the opportunity to confer with U.S. experts and political practitioners to ascertain strategies that work in the U.S. while sharing best practices in Canada was enormously revealing.

And, while it is true that Canada is electing a higher percentage of women than in the United States, the U.S. actually has several robust organizations dedicated to advocating for and equipping women to run and succeed in politics.

Canada, on the other hand, has done more talking than doing. Much ink has been spilled on the topic during two Royal Commissions, multiple conferences and many more conversations in the media and within political parties themselves. When polled, Canadians of both genders regularly express a desire for more women on the ballot so that our democratic institutions better reflect the population.

However, despite all of the hand wringing and good will, the reality is that women and men do not even come close to sharing political power equally in Canada. Our historic achievement of parity among male and female premiers in 2013 was fleeting. If you blinked last year, you probably missed it. In 2014, we’re down to just two women premiers pointing to the tenuousness of these gains. Furthermore, even when women do break through, many of our political institutions continue to cling to structures and norms that were created before most women had the right to vote.

So what is the U.S. doing right? With the success of ground breaking women in the last 30 years—not to mention the attention that Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin have garnered over the last decade—it’s no longer simply a matter of women candidates waiting to be asked to run. The active recruitment of leading women, along with the success of groups which focus specifically on raising money for women (groups that are notably absent in Canada), reveals the high degree of support that promising women candidates can enjoy.

At the same time, the challenges for women and men entering public life are enormous—and the larger and seemingly more competitive political arena in the U.S. amplifies them. The relentless public scrutiny, excessive use of negative campaign ads, not to mention acute sexism on the part of many media outlets in terms of how women candidates are covered, are all reasons some women stand down from running for office. Sadly, Democratic Congresswoman, Gabby Gifford, who was the victim of an attempted assassination, is one of the more notable examples of these realities. Women who do enter the political fray in the U.S. have to be incredibly committed to the cause, enjoy unwavering family and party support and, quite simply, be as tough as nails.

The good news? Women who do come forward are that tough and, through the support of key U.S. multi-partisan organizations such as She Should Run and the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee which are equipping women in campaign readiness, they are getting the training and support they need to mount winning electoral bids. One can take a lot of hope from the modest rise in the percentage of women governors to the thousands of women serving in elected positions in the U.S., at every level. The opportunity for Canada to learn from these women is tremendous.

At the same time, Canada has lessons to share too. Politics is arguably more accessible in this country due to the character of Canada’s party system; smaller numbers and spending limits scaled to a population one-tenth the size of its U.S. counterpart. Without a perpetual election cycle which knows no reprieve, prospective women candidates in Canada have more opportunities to get in the game without devoting 24/7 to a run in the years leading up to an election.
Given these seemingly more favourable conditions, why isn’t Canada doing notably better? Clearly, the strength of U.S. non-governmental organizations that encourage and equip candidates is making a significant difference. What would it look like if Canada’s only national multi-partisan organization dedicated to this issue—Equal Voice –had the kind of reach and resources of our American counterparts? How would the game change if there were a more cohesive recruitment strategy for the hundreds—if not thousands—of talented prospective women candidates in Canada? We expect the claim—‘We could not find a female candidate,’ would be heard far less. What if Equal Voice was truly able to equip thousands of women to run—and the next generation of young women to set their sights on making a political contribution? These are areas where Equal Voice plans to go over the next five years.
In the U.S., organizational investments in infrastructure, outreach and campaign readiness are paying off for women across the political spectrum. It is time for Canada to enhance its efforts across the board so that we can become a true leader in achieving gender parity in our political institutions.
Raylene Lang-Dion is National Chair of Equal Voice.