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Gender parity in politics was a hot topic this past week in the Quebec National Assembly, as party leaders were, for the third consecutive year in a row, handed a proposal for a bill from Groupe Femmes, Politique et Democracie. The non-partisan group is calling for parity in Quebec politics – and specifically, asking for an amendment to the Election Act that would force all political parties to ensure women make up 40 to 60 per cent of all candidates by the 2020 election.

The public debate moved on to an even wider television audience this past Sunday when Quebec’s first female premier Pauline Marois joined journalist and author Pascale Navarro and former MNA Yolande James to continue discussing the issue on Tout le Monde en Parle, the province’s most popular French-language talk show.

Watching Sunday’s show was an exercise in frustration. Few issues manage to elicit as much agreement in what the end result should be, while remaining hopelessly divided on what the methods employed to get there are – even among many women. As a result, we remain at an impasse: those who demand forced quotas from political parties because they see it as the only way to true democratic representation (Navarro), and those who prefer to gently nudge progress in the right direction (Marois and Yolande), the way you do a hopelessly slow turtle that keeps turning its head to look at you accusingly because you woke it up from its nap.

The irrefutable fact is this: Quebec women are still woefully underrepresented in the public sphere and governments and political parties have repeatedly failed to address the problem. In Quebec, only 29.9 per cent of elected politicians are women. A mere 17.7 per cent of women are mayors. At the current rate of progress, it would take another 60 years to reach parity. Not only is the province not advancing in this area, it’s, in fact, severely regressed. In six years, we went from being in 22nd position in terms of political gender parity around the world, to 49th. The numbers are no better for the rest of Canada, where we also lag behind other developed countries in terms of increasing the number of women on corporate boards, according to a 2016 study.

What do Quebec's political parties have to say? Who knows...

With a provincial election only months away, and with demands for forced quotas back in the spotlight, it’s fascinating to watch the uncomfortable public squirming of party leaders take place, as they try not to alienate female voters while simultaneously circumventing demands to legally force political parties to enforce parity in their pool of candidates.

As it currently stands, only Québec Solidaire appears to be in favour of obligatory quotas. The Liberals and the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) are only in favour of voluntary measures to increase gender parity, while the Parti Québecois has only offered a convoluted semi-answer to the question of mandatory quotas.

PQ leader Jean-Francois Lisee has said that if elected, his government would table a bill aimed at bringing parity to the National Assembly. “We'll have the discussion on the means, the mechanisms, but clearly it's a strong political signal that the National Assembly has to send to society and to itself, that it wants to meet a higher standard of equality,” he was quoted in a recent press conference.

“When we legislate parity, we find the women, and when we don’t, we find excuses,” @GouvFeminin founder and president, @CarolineCodsi, concluded. #qcpoli #cdnpoli #feminism @toulastake

If you're not sure what that means, well, neither is he. "Will there be sanctions? A simple objective? Incentives?" he trailed on, reiterating that a public debate would most likely settle that, but probably not him.

CAQ leader Francois Legault has said that he's not committing to a bill. However, sitting at a recent panel discussion luncheon at Montreal’s Ritz Carlton Hotel, organized by La Gouvernance au Féminin — a non-profit organization that aims to increase women’s participation in the public sphere — Legault, in full-on electoral mode, promised that if he became Quebec’s next premier, he would form a gender-balanced cabinet. Legault is also in favour of proportional representation because he believes it would encourage more women to run for politics. He concluded his pitch with a rather awkward and slightly patronizing, “I want to tell you I am your friend,” as if he were afraid the overwhelmingly female audience didn’t believe him or were planning an uprising in between bites of their lunch.

Not to be outdone, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard also waded into the debate by giving a rather confusing answer to a simple question, indicating that he, perhaps, doesn’t quite understand the issue at hand. He insisted the Liberal Party would commit to reaching the “parity zone” after the next election — at least 40 per cent women — but cautioned against gender balance because “it was also important to for the National Assembly to be representative of all minorities" and pondered: "What if other minorities requested that their right to equal representation become mandatory law?"

His reply prompted accusations of “mansplaining” from PQ deputy leader Véronique Hivon, who also attended the Gouvernance au Féminin luncheon. While there, she was was quoted as saying, “When I first started in politics, I questioned whether forced quotas were the solution, but now after nine years, I realize how systemic discrimination can affect things and I believe that legislation is required to increase our numbers.”

“I was really troubled by the way the premier handled the whole parity issue,” she said. “Women are not a minority. They are half the population and they include the representation of all diversity and all minorities.”

Actually… if we really want to get technical here, women in Quebec are not a minority they are in fact the majority. Couillard may be advising prudence (which is what everyone does when they don’t want to make a clear decision), but what is currently needed is political bravery to do what has been required for so long now.

Gender parity at the Quebec National Assembly isn’t anything new. In 2007, Quebec Premier Jean Charest appointed as many women as he did men to his cabinet; a first for the province. While I suspect few Quebec politicians would be against gender equality and equal representation at the National Assembly, it’s the notion of legislating political equality and imposing quotas that makes more than a few of them itchy all over. Watching them do their annual dance of carefully worded non-answers, offering platitudes about how important women are, and evasively slipping and sliding away from any clear responses that reporters can use as a definite commitment, without simultaneously angering voters who are in favour of quotas would be funny, if it weren’t so exasperating.

Gender parity improves democracy

Those opposed to forced quotas remain firmly in two camps: those who think it translates to tokenism and pandering to a specific political group, and those who like the status quo as it is because it benefits them.

Women and Power: The Case for Parity by journalist Pascale Navarro goes a long way towards explaining why parity isn’t tokenism. Her 80-page essay makes the case for gender parity in government in a concise, candid, and informative way and is recommended reading for those who want to get a good grasp of the issue. Unfortunately, those opposed to gender quotas are the ones least likely to want to read it. In the meantime, however, there are numerous studies pointing to both the need for and the positive end results of mandatory quotas.

A study conducted by London School of Economics economist Tim Besley, Gender quotas and the crisis of the mediocre man, which was also recently quoted in L’Actualité points to an extensive study that was conducted in Sweden, where forced parity not only didn’t adversely affect the quality of candidates that were presented, but in fact improved the overall quality. Why? Because mediocre men were removed and eventually replaced with competent women. It’s therefore no surprise that it was also revealed that mediocre men were the ones who most resisted forced quotas.

And yet, despite the evidence, Marois and James, while supporting the idea of parity on TLMEP, were more comfortable with voluntary quotas, much to the obvious frustration of Navarro. The Quebec public (at least the ones watching the TV show that night) seems to also agree with the former.

A non-scientific Twitter poll by TLMEP asked the question from its viewers: Would you be in favour of legislation obligating political parties to present between 40 and 60 per cent of each gender as their candidates?

A total of 24 per cent said, “Yes, it’s necessary,” 38 per cent said, “Yes to parity without legislation,” 30 per cent said, “no,” and eight per cent “didn’t care either way”.

The insistence that we let things naturally progress prompted a viewer to tweet, “No one is against merit. But believing that gender parity is just going to happen in politics, is tantamount to believing that oil companies will self-regulate for the environment’s protection.” Touché!

That tweet, however, is the truth right there. Women are sitting here patiently waiting for the rules to change so they, too, can also equally play by them, when the rules were initially put in place by men. It’s not going to happen because the game was rigged from the get-go. Despite progress, the old boy’s club is alive and well and continues to benefit men in many unseen ways. Those pretending to protect the merit of the current status quo are making the grave mistake of assuming that those currently in power only got there because of their competence. What if privilege and connections and systemic sexism had a little to do with it too? Parity laws aren’t there to reward or promote incompetent women, they are there to ensure that competent women aren’t pushed aside because the old boy’s network has made sure they won’t be allowed to get in. Gender parity in politics won’t facilitate mediocrity; it will protect against it.

The obstacles to women's political participation

Parity requires real conviction and effort from political parties. It’s not enough to say you believe in equality and that more women should enter politics. That requires absolutely no effort from anyone in office. You need to create the conditions where women will feel welcomed and supported. You need more family/work balance. How is it that as a Quebec minister you can’t take parental leave? How is that supposed to encourage more women to run when they remain the primary caregivers and the ones biologically required to be present to feed those babies?

“We can’t just be content with telling women to run for politics,” said Navarro. "Politics fails if it’s not capable of integrating women into democracy.”

Skepticism continues to reign when parity is mentioned. After the show aired, the predictable protectors of all things meritorious came out of the woodwork and I saw some viewers accusing Navarro (who’s one of the most composed women I know) of being shrill and too demanding simply because she was asking for quotas. The backlash to perfectly legitimate feminist demands is tiresome and targets women with particular animosity.

Former QS leader, Francoise David, also at the luncheon, alluded to that ugly treatment reserved for women during her talk: “Many women hesitate to present their candidacy, not because of salary expectations or lack of competence, but because they don’t want to be the target of social media and media in general, and possibly expose their kids to all of that. But women should still come forward and run,” she urged, “because their diversity of opinion is needed” and because “politics remains the main way for social change.”

Present at the same event, both Hélène David, the minister responsible for the status of women, and Montreal mayor, Valérie Plante spoke of the imposter syndrome that plagues so many women because of socialization and because of the dearth of public female role models, that keeps them from feeling comfortable enough to throw their hats in the political ring.

“Too many women question themselves,” said David, "but our voices are needed. The older I get, the more of a feminist I become.” Plante also spoke to this hesitancy and her commitment to gender parity: “When we put out a call for political attaches for our administration, ten men would send their resumes compared to one woman. It took time to find the women we wanted, but we found them.”

On TLMEP, James also referenced the imposter syndrome and the fear that many women and minorities experience that they will be viewed as token recruits. Recalling the day that she was sworn in as a minister, Quebec’s first black minister and its youngest, remembered it as being the most stressful of her political career. Why? Because she worried people would think she was only chosen because she was young, black and a woman. The fear of being seen as undeserving of a position prevents many women from running in politics. Socialization has ensured most men rarely experience similar doubts.

If the corporate world is any indication of how forced quotas can bring about systemic and long-term change, research shows countries that have made the biggest jumps in female representation on boards are those with laws and regulations on the books.

“When we legislate parity, we find the women, and when we don’t, we find excuses,” Gouvernance au Féminin founder and president, Caroline Codsi, concluded her speech with. To which I can only add, "Amen, sister!"

Provincial government and municipal associations may be increasing their promotional campaigns to get more women to run, but it’s simply not enough. You need to create the conditions that will make it more conducive for them to run. The responsibility goes both ways. You can’t simply just coax women to run and tell them the door will open when they knock on it. You need to ensure the door isn’t locked or not repeatedly slamming into their shins every time they try to enter the room, while some mediocre guy dressed for a golf game isn't putting his considerable weight against it on the other end. You get the picture.

Parity is about better representation, better representation is about improved decision-making, and improved decision-making is about better democracy. It benefits everyone. People who feel that things will eventually just fall into place, and the myriad obstacles that prevent and dissuade women from entering politics will miraculously cease to exist over time are either naive or optimistic — or, simply indifferent to why this is a vital next step in our democratic process.

If suffragettes had believed that gentle cajoling and occasional reminders to politicians in power actually worked to move things along, they – and their petticoats and their protest signs — would still be in some sad corner gathering dust and waiting for the right to vote.

Instead, they fought tooth and nail to be considered equal citizens and have their voices and their votes matter in the electoral process. It’s not enough to legally allow women to run for office. It requires a concentrated effort to dismantle the system that refuses to make it worthwhile for them to run.

Progress requires more than rocking the boat a little; sometimes it requires that we be brave enough to steer it into an entirely new direction if we're going to get where we need to go.

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