Happy International Women’s Day, everyone. This is the day of the year set aside to contemplate the contributions one half of our populations make to society, especially considering how far we’ve come and how far we have to go. Progress in female equality and participation will be measured differently in different parts of the world. As with other areas of progress, it’s often much slower than we’d like and occasionally there are steps backwards, but all in all we’re on a positive path. And a positive path in ensuring full participation and equal opportunities (and respect) for women is just as important for men and boys as it is for women and girls. We’re in this together.
Given the captivating political saga that has unfolded over the past few weeks in Canada – and I admit to being riveted by it – it seemed like an opportune time to delve into what kind of progress women have made in politics around the world. (This is as opposed to the fraught question as to what kind of progress politics has made around the world!)
Why is it important? Well, first of all, what is politics? If we leave aside the second definition of a politician in Webster’s dictionary (a person who acts in a manipulative and devious way, typically to gain advancement within an organization), a politician is a person experienced in the art or science of government; especially one actively engaged in conducting the business of a government. And government, according to a passage I recently read in Steven Pinker’s excellent book Enlightenment Now, “is a human invention, tacitly agreed to in a social contract, designed to enhance the welfare of citizens by coordinating their behavior and discouraging selfish acts that may be tempting to every individual but leave everyone worse off.” As Thomas Jefferson penned many, many years ago, “In order to secure the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, governments are instituted among people, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Women’s voices are paramount in ensuring that governments do just that.
Let’s take a look at how well women are represented in parliaments and legislatures around the world. As indicated in the table of Women in National Parliaments, the countries with the highest proportion of female representation are: Rwanda (61.3%), Cuba (53.2%), Bolivia (53.1%), Mexico (48.2%), and Sweden (47.3%). Surprised, right? The next western countries on the list come in at 12th-16th place, in the low 40s: Finland, Spain, Norway, New Zealand, and France. The UK ranks 39th at 32%, Canada ranks 62nd at 26.9%, and the U.S. is tied for 78th spot at 23.5%. Nothing to shout about.
Given the very different cultures, history, and challenges facing all countries, it’s clear that having more women in a representative parliament doesn’t automatically and immediately change things. But it is interesting to take a look at the political leanings of the female legislators, because that does speak to a certain extent to the reasons women go into politics.
In the United Kingdom, of the 620 MPs, 208 are women, or 32% of the mix. However, the Conservative party, although having a female leader, has only 67 out of their 317 not-quite-majority, or 21%. It is the more socially progressive parties, Labour, SNP, and Lib Dems, who bring up the UK’s female representation, with 135 female MPs out of 309, or 43.7%. (Other small parties have negligible numbers of women MPs.)
Likewise, in the U.S., the more socially progressive Democrats have far more women participating in both Congress and the Senate. In the current U.S. Congress, 127 of the 535 representatives are women, or 23.7%, but of those 127 women, 106 of them are Democrats and only 21 are Republicans. That’s a huge difference. As of January 2019, the United States Senate has 25 senators, 17 Democrats and 8 Republicans. It’s the highest proportion of women serving as senators in U.S. history at 25%, and twice as many of these senators are Democrats as Republicans.
In Canada we find precisely the same thing; women are underrepresented in Parliament, but those who are there, working diligently on behalf of their constituents, predominately bring socially progressive positions to their jobs. The currently ruling Liberal party has 54 female MPs out of a total of 183, or 29.5%, as opposed to the opposition Conservatives, who have 19 women out of 97 MPs, or 19.6%. However, if we add together NDP, Green, and Liberal women MPs, all supporting more socially progressive agendas, the percentage of females in that group of MPs moves to 32%.
In all three of these countries, the female participation in politics has come a long way, but has a very long way to go. And, although possibly not entirely surprising, we see that female participation is far stronger in political parties that have more socially progressive policies. The reasons for this are entirely a matter of conjecture, but I will put forward the completely unproven premise that it is because women are persuaded to get into politics to make a difference. And making a difference means making a difference to the society in which you live. Ensuring that there are jobs for all, yes, but also ensuring that the safety nets are in place for people who are down on their luck, who need retraining or early childhood education so their children can get a leg up, who need health care and should be able to get it without borrowing money or setting up a GoFundMe page. These are issues that bring out the passion and the fight in a lot of women.
And there is something else that is a little bit different from at least a certain percentage of women who go into politics to make a difference. They don’t necessarily expect to be able to get things done only if they play by the same old “wink, wink” rules of the game. Some will relish the game, I get that, but other women – and hopefully men – will rightly believe that when politicians say the world is changing and that bribes, corruption, cronyism and the old boys’ network will no longer prevail, that we’re going to do politics differently, that they mean it. I’m going to hold out hope for that.
So, on International Women’s Day in 2019, I’d like to give a shout-out to women of all stripes who have gone into politics to make a difference according to their own definition. Politics is a tough and often nasty business, not at all easy, but getting it right is SOooo important to ensuring that our civil societies endure and prosper, for every citizen. I applaud you all for being willing to take up the cause and the fight. We need your strong female voices and energy engaged in the process.
I’d like to give a very special shout-out to Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott for showing us all that integrity and openness in government are worth fighting for. And, finally, a shout-out to Martha Hall Findlay, a former Canadian Liberal MP, for her outstanding article in yesterday’s Globe and Mail entitled “Wilson-Raybould and Philpott aren’t principled because they’re women, they’re just principled”. It’s worth a read, regardless of what country you’re reading this from.
Happy International Women’s Day to all girls and women, and a big thank-you to all those men – fathers, husbands, brothers, sons, colleagues, and mentors – who empower, encourage and support us to be all we can be.