Agnes Macphail, the first woman elected to the House of Commons in 1921, and Nellie Cournoyea, the first Aboriginal woman to become a provincial or territorial premier in 1991, have accomplishments separated by decades, but they share the status of female trailblazers in Canadian politics.
International Women’s Day is a time to celebrate such achievements, to reflect on women’s progress and to highlight challenges women still face. The day is marked every year on 8 March and was first established by the United Nations during International Women’s Year in 1975.
The United Nation’s 2013 International Women’s Day theme is “A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women.” Canada’s 2013 theme is “Working Together: Engaging Men to End Violence against Women.”
Women’s political leadership in Canada and around the world
The widely recognized minimum benchmark to guarantee a critical mass of women in decision-making institutions is 30%. Despite progress, women remain under-represented in most decision-making positions (1.29MB, 1 page) in many countries, including Canada.
According to 2013 Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) data, the worldwide average for women’s representation in the single/lower legislative house is 20.8%, below the 30% benchmark and well below the 50% for full equality. However, this is above the average of 19.7% in 2011. The IPU attributes this increase to legislated or voluntary quota systems that are often used in combination with a proportional representation electoral system.
In Canada, most recent data indicate that women hold 24.4% of the seats in the House of Commons. Canada ranks 45th in the world in women’s representation in the single/lower legislative house, as indicated in the IPU world classification.
This places Canada ahead of, for example, the United Kingdom (22.5%), the United States (17.8%) and Russia (13.6%) in women’s representation. Canada sits below such countries as New Zealand (32.2%), Sweden (44.7%), and the world’s leader, Rwanda (56.3%).
Progress at the federal level
Agnes Macphail’s 1921 victory did not open the floodgates for female politicians at the federal level; only four women were elected in the subsequent 25 years.
Their representation did gradually increase; by 1984, women held 9.6% of federal seats, and by 1993, 18.0%. In the 1997 federal election, women took 20.6% of the seats, and this proportion lingered around the 20% mark for the next decade.
The 41st Parliament, which has followed the 2011 election, includes a record number of female MPs. A total of 76 women were initially elected to the Commons, representing 24.8% of seats.
In the Senate, most recent data indicate that women hold a much higher proportion of seats, 36.5%.
Provinces and territories
Canada has a record high of six female premiers. As for the proportion of women members in provincial and territorial legislatures, it varies widely (see Table 1). Currently, three of the provincial/territorial legislatures – those of Quebec (32.8%), British Columbia (31.8%) and Yukon (31.6%) – are above the 30% benchmark. The Quebec legislature was the first among federal, provincial and territorial elected assemblies to meet the benchmark: in the 2003 election, women won 32% of the seats.
Near the benchmark are the Ontario (28.6%), Manitoba (26.8%) and Alberta (26.4%) legislatures, while the Northwest Territories (10.5%) legislature ranks lowest.
Table 1 - Percentage of Seats Currently Held by Women in Provincial or Territorial Legislatures
|Province or Territory
||Percentage of Seats
Held by Women
|Prince Edward Island
|Newfoundland and Labrador
Source: ParlInfo, Library of Parliament.
Women’s leadership in business
In Canada, the representation of women in corporate leadership roles does not match their presence in the workforce (47.5%) or their relatively high share of MBAs (34.5%). Women hold 5.7% of the heads/CEOs positions and 14.5% of board of directors positions.
At the international level, a number of countries have adopted quotas for diversity on corporate boards, while others have set targets for women on boards and oblige companies to comply or explain publicly why they do not. As well, some countries have adopted a requirement for companies to discuss board diversity in their annual shareholder filings.
In Canada, only Quebec has legislated gender parity for the boards of its Crown corporations.
At the federal level, there have been some developments. In 2012, the federal government announced the creation of an advisory council of leaders from the private and public sectors to promote women’s participation on corporate boards. There have been efforts in the form of private members’ bills in both the Senate (S-203) and the House of Commons (C-407) to mandate female representation on boards.
Empowering girls to become leaders
Plan Canada’s Because I am a Girl campaign is inspired, in part, by the knowledge that educated and empowered girls become leaders in the home, in the community, and at the national level.
As part of this campaign, Plan Canada began an initiative to develop an International Day of the Girl Child. With support from the Canadian Parliament and the Canadian delegation to the United Nations, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution declaring 11 October 2012 the first International Day of the Girl. This event occurs annually and highlights the unique challenges girls encounter throughout their lives.
International Women’s Day recognizes the women of present and past; International Day of the Girl is a celebration of the generations on the horizon.