Gender in Politics: Canada by the Numbers

The Canadian parliament last week broke new ground in gender equity with its announcement of a 50-50 split in cabinet. This was, apparently, progress.

Perceived and Actual Underrepresentation

Personal autonomy rejects the notion that anything short of parity indicates discrimination. When less people of a certain demographic apply for a job, and it is accepted that ability falls neatly within a bell curve regardless of each individual’s demographic, it becomes statistically improbable that the best candidates will accurately represent the greater demographics within society. Thus insistence on parity necessitates the rejection of the very ideal upon which it is based; non-discrimination. Any attempt to enforce ‘accurate’ representation – be it through external social pressure, voluntary or enforced quotas – is simply discrimination by another name, and it is unlikely to reward the most qualified individual nor obtain the best results for the community. Representation should always reflect the candidate list, more or less, and not wider society.

From my Australian perspective, female underrepresentation in politics appears an imagined problem. The data* shows that women are at, and in many cases above, equal representation. That is to say that in recent years women now occupy a higher percentage of seats in parliament than they do names on ballot papers. As a general rule, there appears to be no discrimination against women. The exception which proves this rule, and operates as an explanatory microcosm, is a situation like our current predicament. Following a landslide conservative victory at the most recent federal election, women find themselves considerably underrepresented. Is this because society instantly regressed into overt sexism or rather that women are less likely to want to represent the conservative side of politics? Answer that question and you will understand why women do not occupy 50% of the parliament: there simply aren’t enough applicants.

I’ve tended to vocally assume equal representation, or overrepresentation, of women is likely to be common amongst the modern western world – especially given Australia’s internal and international reputation as somewhat backwards, simplistic and sexist – but my assumption is not the case in Canada.

Canadian Election, 2015

Of 1792 names on Canadian ballot papers, 533 were female (30%).

Of 338 elected members, 88 were female (26%).

Assuming a completely gender neutral system, 101 women would have been elected, which translates to a 13% underrepresentation of women. This appears wrong, especially considering these results would be expected to be slanted in the favour of women given the victory of the left.

This presents four possibilities:

  1. The electorate is sexist. ie. The people have specifically chosen, consciously or subconsciously, not to vote for female candidates. However, the electorate tend to side with a party, their policies or principles, or – in a worrying trend emulating a presidential system – merely for the image of the leader. Very few know or care in the slightest about their local member. The public are effectively voting for nameless, faceless and genderless people representing a greater cause. We should be prepared to exonerate the public.
  2. The parties are sexist. ie. Women are superficially included, but they are disproportionately demoted to unwinnable seats. This could well be true. All four parties which returned multiple members to parliament saw women disproportionately underrepresented. The Greens’ only elected member was female, despite males comprising 60% of their candidates.
  3. Reality is sexist. ie. Men are superior given the requirements of the field. Merely considering this possibility is now considered a misogynistic thought crime, so the less said the better.
  4. Overanalysis. This is the most likely explanation in the case of slight discrepancies.

The perceived inequality can be exaggerated by ignoring independents and minor or single-issue parties. Restricting the analysis to the five major parties increases female nominees to 471 out of 957, or 33% of candidates. This is the method most often deployed in the media, and it suggests 111 women should have been elected, which translates to 21% female underrepresentation. This is considerably more significant than the broader analysis, which if we do exonerate the public as I suggest in point 1, was already an overestimate.

Assuming people would have voted for the same party regardless of their local candidate and that there was no selection bias by the parties themselves in placing more male candidates in safe seats, we would have expected to have elected 98 women. That is still 10 more than the actual figure of 88 and equates to a 10% underrepresentation, but it is a few less than the 101 in the broad analysis and considerably short of 111 predicted by the most common narrative.

Women in Canadian Politics

Interestingly, the statistics suggest the Liberals are the most anti-woman, which could explain the compensatory cabinet.


The decision to enforce gender parity in cabinet shows a far more alarming gender bias in favour of women than did the general election in favour of men.

From 183 members, the Liberals selected 30 cabinet members consisting of 15 men and 15 women to join the prime minister. It almost sounds fair and representative, assuming you ignore the workings. There were only 50 female candidates from which to draw the 15 female members, and 133 for the 15 males. This gave females a 30% chance, but only a 9% chance to males. In other words, women were more than three times as likely to be appointed to the highest positions in government as were men. Had gender not been a criterion for selection, something which is typically considered illegal in most modern countries, one would have expected 22 men and 8 women.

Age and Experience

One of the best indicators of merit is seniority. Senior members have withstood the competition, public scrutiny and the test of time. For better or worse, politics tends to be the realm of society’s most experienced members. Many reach their political peak at an age more befitting retirement for the typical worker.

The average age of the new cabinet is 51. It is 55 amongst men and 48 amongst women. That is to say the average female cabinet member has approximately two fewer political terms worth of experience than their male counterparts, be that in parliament directly or in the public or private sectors.

The youngest male is 38, and the youngest female is 30. Again, a similar discrepancy.

There is a similar, yet even more pronounced trend, when expanding the analysis to all minority and special interest groups – another trumpeted success of the new cabinet.

The average age of white men is 57, while the average age of women and minorities is 47, expanding the gap to a decade.

The youngest white man is 45, a 15 year gap to the youngest woman, and 7 years to the youngest minority male.

It’s almost as though those evil privileged white men of lore have to earn their positions by outcompeting their peers over years of service, while the poor discriminated against women and minorities are gifted a free pass due to a dearth of competition within their groups.

Independents and Minor Parties

It has long been suggested that the gender gap in terms of outcomes could be explained by relative levels of political interest between the genders. This theory is supported by the numbers outside of the major political parties. Of the 364 candidates who stood as independents or represented minor and single-issue parties, only 62 were female, or 17%. This figure is lower than any major party. Even the Conservatives had 19% female representation. These figures could prove indicative as these individuals and groups operate outside the societal expectations of the major parties who push to increase female representation. Alternatively, they could suggest men are more likely to operate from without while women are more likely to join established parties. There are probably elements of both.

How to Increase Female Representation

An increased number of female candidates will go a long way to addressing the perceived underrepresentation of women, and increased numbers could in turn address any internal biases created by the current inequity.

Fortunately, there exists a very effective, organic model to increase female representation in a male-dominated, government-funded vocation. That model is teaching: decrease wages and many men will self-select out of the field leaving only those with a genuine calling for the role. It’s a win for true liberals as all would be able to choose their own paths free from discrimination. It’s a win for opponents of government waste as it saves many millions in salaries, perks and retirement benefits. And it’s a win for female power. Sexists are the most likely to object – which would serve to demonstrate the scale, or existence, of the problem of sexism.

* The data is not kept in many instances and is quite arduous to derive. For instance, determining any potential discrimination in my most recent state election, required; manually reading the entire candidate list of almost 900 people; determining their gender – often involving searches of individual and party websites or Google to decipher androgynous or international names (which occasionally proved fruitless and left me to assume the feminine in order to ensure any errors were not obscuring female discrimination); then running the numbers. Below are the results.

Victorian Election, 2014

Female Candidates: 291/893 = 32.6%

Female Members: 48/128 = 37.5%

Female Overrepresentation: 15%

I’ve dedicated the time to do so on a few occasions and results have been the same; suggestive of equality or in favour of women, which perhaps suggests why such a simple statistic is not on the official records. The ‘everything’s fine’ narrative has considerably less traction than the ill-informed shrieks of misogyny over the fact that only 37.5% of parliament is female.

CROWDSOURCING REQUEST: If you can provide any more examples supporting or disconfirming the notion that gender discrimination is an imaginary problem, please contact me or leave a comment below.

New Zealand Election, 2014

Female Candidates: 166/545 = 30.5%

Female Members: 38/121 = 31.4%

Female Overrepresentation: 3.0%

This slight margin in favour of women comes despite a conservative victory.


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