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Janet Bagnall: Still not much political progress for women

International Women’s Day, March 8, has evolved over the years to become a kind of annual checkup to see how close women are getting to equality.

International Women’s Day, March 8, has evolved over the years to become a kind of annual checkup to see how close women are getting to equality.

Pay equity? Not in Canada, where the wage gap favouring men over women stood at 19 per cent in 2010, says the Canadian Conference Board.

Parity in Parliament? No joy here, either. After the 2011 election, women held 25 per cent of the House of Commons’ 308 seats, which puts Canada in 45th position for gender balance among the world’s 189 parliaments, tied with Australia and just above Sudan.

Equal representation on the country’s boards of directors? Advancement here is barely detectable. In 2011, 14.5 per cent of Canada’s board seats were held by women, an increase of 0.5 percentage points since 2009.

But it is not all grim tidings this year; 2013 has brought something new, a historic first for the country. Women form the majority of Canada’s premiers. With the swearing-in last month of Kathleen Wynne in Ontario, five provinces and one territory where more than 85 per cent of Canadians live are led by women. In addition to Wynne, female premiers include Pauline Marois in Quebec, Christy Clark in British Columbia, Alberta’s Alison Redford, Kathy Dunderdale in Newfoundland and Labrador and Nunavut’s Eva Aariak.

The question is whether this change represents a breakthrough for women in Canada. Have barriers fallen and the way cleared for them to take political office in equal numbers?

“I’m not sure yet,” said Dunderdale, 61, elected premier of Newfoundland and Labrador in 2011. “I think it’s going to require some time and we’ll see how we progress in the next four or five years.”

Manon Tremblay, professor at the School of Political Studies at Ottawa University, thinks having six female premiers in power is “huge.”

“Simply by being there, they show that it’s possible for women to serve at the highest levels of power,” Tremblay said. “It allows girls to develop political ambition. Studies still show that young women, even with the same university education as young men, are less ambitious politically. So it’s very important to have women at the highest levels to break this dynamic.”

Green Party leader Elizabeth May, 60, said: “When the public impression of what an MP looks like, what a premier looks like, what a prime minister looks like is always a guy in a suit, it has a very strong message to women not to see themselves there.”

Nunavut’s Aariak, 58, said she is an example of a woman inspired by the women she saw in power. For her, those women were Nellie Cournoyea, the first female premier of a Canadian territory, and B.C.’s Rita Johnston, Canada’s first female premier.

With the exception of Dunderdale and Redford, the female premiers are politically vulnerable, said Jane Arscott, assistant professor at Athabasca University.

Clark and Aariak face elections this year, Clark on May 14. A majority of B.C. voters said in a recent poll it was time for a change. Marois leads a notoriously fractious Parti Québécois and holds only 54 seats in the 125-seat National Assembly. Wynne is also head of a minority government, having taken over from an unpopular Dalton McGuinty.

According to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, women represent 16 per cent of mayors and 25 per cent of councillors. Women make up 25 per cent of provincial legislators, 11 per cent of territorial representatives and slightly fewer than 25 per cent of MPs.

Deborah Grey, 60, the first member of the Reform party to be elected to Parliament, in 1989, and Canada’s first female leader of the Opposition, left politics in 2004. She sticks to the question at hand, whether the election of six female premiers represents a breakthrough for women in Canada.

“To have fully half of the premiers of the provinces women is great, but you know what, I’d like to think they’re capable,” she said. “I don’t actually care if they’re women or not. It’s wonderful that they’re there, but they better be capable.