News  Women underrepresented in federal politics

Panel discusses issues of gender representation

On October 28, the Women In House program, in collaboration with McGill’s Political Science Students’ Association (PSSA), held a panel called “Yes SHE Can” to discuss gendered political participation and promote a more equitable representation of women in politics.

The panel featured Elisabeth Gidengil, a Political Science professor at McGill; Janine Krieber, a member of the Projet Montréal Board of Directors; Martine Desjardins, former Chair of the Quebec Federation of University Students (FEUQ); and Patrik Öhberg, a post-doctoral student working with the Canada Research Chair in Electoral Studies at Université de Montréal’s Department of Political Science.

Carly Walter, one of the organizers of the panel and PSSA Vice-President External Affairs, told The Daily that the panel was an important recognition of the inequality of political representation in Canada. “I have a lot of male friends, and they think it’s ridiculous when I talk about inequality. They don’t think it really exists anymore, or that it’s a problem, but it is. [24.7 per cent] of our federal parliament is female, which is drastic – it’s way too low.”

The panelists addressed what they believe are the reasons behind this low share of seats, and proposed possible solutions to promote women’s interest in politics.

Krieber located the problem within Canadian society. “The problem is that […] this Canadian society is not organized to accept women in politics,” she suggested, drawing on her own experience in political arenas.

Gidengil agreed, pointing to the expectation on women to take care of children and other family members. “The way Parliament operates is just not family-friendly, sitting late into the night and so on.”

On the other hand, Öhberg alleged that women’s reluctance to enter politics is due to their “natural hesitation and over-thinking” when being asked to participate in political matters – a point that Desjardins agreed with.

Finola Hackett, one of the panel organizers and a coordinator of the Women in House program, claimed instead that the reason behind this alleged reluctance lay in the unwelcoming environment in politics.

“Is it harder to convince a woman to run if she lacks the economic security, family support, or social networks to make it easier to adjust to the demanding lifestyle of politics, and if she knows she’ll face discrimination from colleagues or the media? Of course it is,” Hackett said.

NDP Member of Parliament Laurin Liu echoed this point in an interview with The Daily on the topic. “Women’s hesitation stems from other difficulties that they have in accessing roles of power that are traditionally held by men,” Liu said. “There is still a lot of work to do on that front.”

Öhberg believed that the key to promoting women’s interests would be to have more women in Parliament, a view that Shaina Agbayani, one of the panel organizers, a coordinator of the Women in House program, disagreed with.

“I don’t think that having more women in politics will change the game in itself,” Agbayani told The Daily, adding, “I think [the Women in House Program and I] recognize that there are many ‘fronts’ in this battle against the barriers for women’s equitable participation in society, and that the government is only one of them.”

The discussion also turned to women who presently hold political positions, and more particularly, to their representation in the media, which the panelists believed to be gender-biased.

“Just read a news article about a woman [in politics] and it will talk about what she is wearing. It doesn’t talk about what the guy is wearing,” Gidengil said.

Gidengil also addressed the double standard of behaviour. If women behave in an assertive manner, she said they will be portrayed as too aggressive. However, if women try to focus on consensus within politics, “[they] will get marginalized.”

Both Hackett and Agbayani acknowledged that the focus on the gender binary also left many people out of the discussion, whether they identified with a fluid concept of gender or felt that there were intersectional barriers preventing their entrance into politics.

“Though the Women in House program is specifically focused on the concern of female representation, it’s important to acknowledge that gender issues don’t exist in a vacuum, and are tied to broader injustices surrounding who gets to have a say in political discussions,” Hackett said, adding that the focus of the particular panel did not lend itself to a broader perspective, but that it would be noted for the future.