Systemic Change

Numbers and evidence that describe the experience of women in politics and demonstrate the need for change

The Challenge

Despite some women gaining the right to vote and to participate in politics over a century ago, women are still under-represented in legislatures, both within Canada and on a global scale. While there is significant variation across jurisdictions and levels of government within Canada, as of January 2022, Canada ranks 59th in the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) of Women in Politics.


  • 6.6 % of the world’s Heads of State are women
  • 19.7 % Parliamentary Speakers are women
  • 50% of the global population are women, yet only account for 24.3% of elected officials in national parliaments
  • Only 3 countries have 50% women’s representation or more in their Parliament
  • There are 27 countries where women account for less than 10 per cent of parliamentarians
Province or territoryWomenMenTotal% women
British Columbia34538739%
New Brunswick11384922.4%
Nova Scotia17345133.3%
Prince Edward Island7202725.9%
Newfoundland and Labrador10304025%
Northwest Territories2111310.5%

Why do we need more women politicians?

For legislatures to be representative of the Canadian population, it’s important to bring women’s voices, experiences, and concerns to the table. The National Democratic Institute’s 35 years of work in over 100 countries around the world found that women are more likely to work across party lines, be highly responsive to constituents concerns, and prioritize health, education, and other key development issues. While the data is limited, other key findings from studies around the world include:

Solve problems

Women in leadership positions tend to “resolve national crisis without resorting to violence, advocate for social issues that benefit all, and allocate budgets to health and education.

GDP Growth

Gender balance in the political sphere promotes gender balance in the workforce, which could double global GDP growth by 2025.

Confer trust

Research shows that women’s equal presence in decision-making bodies, like legislatures, legitimizes public policy decisions and confers institutional trust.


One study suggested more women in power leads to a healthier population.

Get it done

Women are better at bringing funding back to their home districts. In the United States, a woman legislator, on average, passed twice as many bills as a male legislator in one recent session of Congress, and districts represented by women received an additional $49 million annually on average compared to their male-represented counterparts.

The Challenges Women Leaders Face

Sexual Harassment

Harassment was repeated frequently throughout the research as a barrier to women’s participation and retention in politics. Gender-based oppression is a deterrent to run for politics, and can lead to women being hesitant to fully participate in the political process.

Social media and online harassment is a significant barrier specifically for women, and an even greater deterrent for those belonging to marginalized groups. The public display of online bullying and harassment deters women from considering running, while online harassment can influence women to discontinue participation in politics. Social media harassment also forces women to self-censor and withdraw, leaving them at a disadvantage.

The IPU survey on violence against women in politics stated that over 80% of respondents experienced some form of psychological violence during their term, while 20% indicated they experienced physical violence.

  • In 2017, the Canadian Press conducted a poll of female MPs. 58% stated they had been a target of sexual harassment or assault at least once while in office.
  • Maclean’s magazine spoke with MPs regarding sexual harassment and they “widely agree the culture is worse for junior staff, and the anecdotes from staffers point to a disturbing trend of sexualized behaviour at work

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I have witnessed and experienced sexism and gender-based discrimination. I have experienced it from within my own caucus, and from members of other caucuses. It has been shocking to have come from another profession where this type of behaviour would be absolutely not allowed. I have reflected on the setting I’m in and I am shocked at how much sexism I see and experience in the building.
Anonymous MP response to Equal Voice survey
Sexism and Gender Stereotypes

The federal Standing Committee on the Status of Women heard from witnesses that “one in five Canadians holds explicit sexist views, and that men and older people are more likely than women to hold these views. Individuals who held explicit sexist views, rated competencies, perceived intelligence, perceived likeability and perceived warmth significantly lower when the example candidate’s credentials were associated with a female name.”
Media coverage plays into these stereotypes, including a focus on the appearance of women political figures, referring to women by their first name, and specific questions on how they will balance family expectations and politics.
A survey study by Name it Change it: Women’s Media Centre observed damaging effects on the favourability of women candidates when their appearance was mentioned (neutral, positive or negative coverage of appearance), while male opponents were not affected by similar coverage at all.

Media’s coverage of women politicians and their work life balance is a common thread in stories leading up to an election. “Female politicians are often asked about their work-life balance, strengthening the stereotype that women are the primary caregivers, whereas male politicians are rarely asked similar questions… The sexism manifests in several ways including being discredited and ignored, being assessed on different standards in terms of how they look, and expectations that women conform to traditional stereotypes of how women should look or behave.”
Women respondents to the Equal Voice Survey also said sexist media coverage, sexism within the legislatures, and belittling were the second most frequent types of abuse experienced by a larger proportion of women compared to men.

Studies indicate that voters tend to prefer masculine to feminine traits when evaluating candidates for high political office… (This) gendered division of labour produces broad, blunt ideas and expectations about behaviours that are appropriate, or attributed to the general social categories of ‘women’ and ‘men’ …this means that women who are active in specific political, occupational, and civic activities are evaluated differently than are men in comparable pursuits.”
Melanee Thomas
Associate Professor in Political Science, University of Calgary
Language and Legislative Decorum

Women politicians may experience politics differently than men, particularly as their experience relates to legislative decorum, parliamentary rules, and procedures. Procedures within legislatures can allow women to be directly or indirectly attacked with language, or inadvertently give men member power and/or time to speak.
Making a direct reference to gender can encourage stereotpes and demean women legislators.
The Samara Centre for Democracy surveyed MPs directly on heckling and found that “67% of women MPs reported gendered heckling versus just 20% of their male counterparts. Female respondents to the survey indicated that gender-based heckling affected their performance and reduced their willingness to participate in debates.”

Some politicians stated that one of the biggest impediments to performing well in their role was the political culture accepted within the legislature. “A total lack of enforcement of rules of decorum in the house allowing for abuse, heckling and more,” said an elected official from Manitoba. While another said, “archaic legislative procedures” affected his performance.

Preventative actions including gender-awareness training seminars, as suggested by IPU’s Gender Action Plan and UK Gender Sensitive Parliament Audit 2018 mentioned performing unconscious bias training as suggested solutions. A better understanding of what is and what is not acceptable language, as well as a guideline for gender-sensitive language should also be mandatory. Punitive measure by the speaker could hold members responsible for insensitive language, and sexist remarks.

I have had to formally request that a committee member stop referring to me as ‘little lady’ during formal proceedings; have had a minister lose his temper in response to questions during QP, wag his finger at me and admonish me for my inappropriate tone and impertinence; have been called bossy, loud, abrasive, a know it all, and too big for my boots.
Anonymous MP
Response to Equal Voice survey
Just listen to QP and hear the thundering (and offensive) heckling directed at female ministers or Parliamentary Secretaries. Listen to the tone of the questions and the assertions of submission they make about women MPs all the time. It’s appalling how misogynistic they are.
Anonymous MP
Response to Equal Voice survey
Leadership Positions

The IPU for gender-sensitive parliaments includes action to increase the representation of women to “match the women’s broader representation in society.” Within the action plan to increase women’s representation they state that parliaments should “introduce dual leadership for parliamentary structures, where possible through the appointment of a man and a woman and rotate positions of parliamentary leadership between men and women over a period of time.” For example in Canada, the Speaker has significant power in the legislature and there has only been one woman speaker in the House of Commons, and very few in the history of provincial legislatures.

Did you know?

Only 12 women have held the position of Premier in Canada, and only one secured a second mandate.

UK’s Gender-Sensitive Audit

Legislators govern themselves and can overcome gender disparities. For example, in 2010 the Standing Orders in the UK Parliamentary provided for a woman to be included across the four elected positions of Speaker and Deputies.

The UK also recommended that the panel of chairs on committees need to be made more diverse over time and include members of diverse populations. A committee or department dedicated to the monitoring of women members overall and women in leadership positions can ensure a gender-sensitive legislature and create accountability.

Calendar, Schedule, Sitting Hours, Infrastructure

Politicians interviewed as part of Equal Voice’s study spoke about the importance of predictable calendars, condensed schedules, and family infrastructure within legislatures. The IPU recommendations for gender sensitive parliaments states that parliaments should “rearrange their sitting hours (e.g. by establishing compressed sitting weeks, creating schedules that start early, avoiding late voting, and aligning sitting times with the school calendar) so that parliamentarians can return to their electorates and spend more time with their families.”

Because women still often take the lead role of caregiver, the lack of predictability and advance knowledge of location and business, make it difficult to secure childcare. Without a facility on site to care for a member’s children after hours or where those facilities have minimum age limits for children, it’s difficult to balance family and work for a lot of members.

The IPU suggests family rooms and spaces within buildings to offer more time for families, nursing, and childcare. The House of Commons and the Alberta Legislature, for instance, offer a family room for time and space to express milk.

Allowing infants on the floor for care and nursing, as well as parental leave provisions, would open the doors to more participants in politics. Those starting a family may consider legislatures more accessible and this would allow for more diversity within the chambers.

Tele-commuting and Proxy Voting

  • Australia has allowed nursing mothers to vote by proxy since 2008, limited only in the case of third readings on bills that propose a change to the Constitution.
  • In New Zealand, the Speaker can grant leave on a compassionate basis or because of family reasons, including absence for a short period following the birth of their children and proxy voting is used.
  • In 2018, the UK House of Commons passed the following resolution: “That this House believes that it would be to the benefit of the functioning of parliamentary democracythat honourable Members who have had a baby or adopted a child should for a period of time be entitled, but not required, to discharge their responsibilities to vote in this House by proxy.”
  • In Newfoundland and Labrador, a recommendation on innovative use of technology was made: “The chair and committee members are expected to take advantage of electronic media to participate in committee work where practical.” Currently, however, a Member cannot count toward quorum unless they are physically present.
  • B.C. and Alberta allow Members to participate in Committee meetings using technology.

Download the complete study

Includes references, Equal Voice’s recommendations and impact statement.

  • Publication Date: February 2020
  • Pages: 23
  • File Format: PDF
  • File Size: 2.9MB