Women in Canada’s Parliament

Laura Munn-Rivard
Legal and Social Affairs Division

In 1921, Agnes Macphail was the first woman to be elected to Canada’s House of Commons and the only woman to serve in the 14th Parliament. In 1930, Cairine Wilson was sworn in as Canada’s first female senator. These female trailblazers opened the doors of Parliament to future generations of Canadian women.

Since then, Canadian women have come to play a greater role in politics than at any other time in the nation’s history. Yet women remain underrepresented at every level of government, including in Canada’s Parliament.

Canada’s 42nd Parliament: Record proportion of female MPs

In the Canadian federal election, held on 19 October 2015, women won 88 of the 338 seats (26.0%) in the House of Commons, a record proportion of female Members of Parliament. This was an increase from the 2011 election when they took 76 of the 308 seats (24.7%).

Women first surpassed the 20% mark in the House of Commons in the 1997 election when they took 20.6% of seats. The proportion hovered around the 20% mark until the 2008 general election when it increased to 22.4%.

According to Equal Voice, when Elections Canada closed nominations on 28 September 2015, women comprised 33% of the candidates from the five principal parties in the election. This was up slightly from 31% in the 2011 federal election. In 2015, women made up:

  • 20% of Conservative Party of Canada candidates;
  • 28% of Bloc Québécois candidates;
  • 31% of Liberal Party of Canada candidates;
  • 39% of Green Party of Canada candidates; and
  • 43% of the New Democratic Party candidates.

Women’s representation in Canada’s Senate is higher than in the House of Commons. As of October 2015, women held 31 of the 83 occupied seats (37.4%) in the Red Chamber.

Women in leadership roles in Parliament

A useful measure of women’s representation in positions of power and decision making is the proportion of women who are heads of government, who are heads of state, who serve in cabinet, or who are speakers of parliament.

Women represented 14 of 193 heads of government (7.3%) around the world in January 2015. Nationally, Canada has not yet elected a female prime minister. Kim Campbell became the first woman to serve as Prime Minister of Canada when she won the Progressive Conservative leadership following the retirement of Brian Mulroney in 1993.

Worldwide, in January 2015, 6.6% of countries had a female head of state. In Canada, three women – Jeanne Sauvé, Adrienne Clarkson, and Michaëlle Jean – have served as Governor General, who is the representative of Canada’s head of state, Queen Elizabeth II.

As of January 2015, in 30 countries, including Canada, at least 30% of ministerial positions were held by women. On 4 November 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Canada’s first federal cabinet comprising equal numbers of women and men (15 women and 15 men, plus the Prime Minister), following through on a commitment he made during the election campaign to appoint a gender-balanced cabinet.

In January 2015, 15.8% of countries in the world had female speakers of parliament. In Canada, in 1980, Jeanne Sauvé was the first – and so far, the only – female Speaker of the House of Commons. Muriel McQueen Fergusson served as the first female Speaker of the Senate, a position she occupied from 1972 to 1974.

Women’s political leadership around the world and at other levels of government in Canada

According to 2015 Inter-Parliamentary Union data, the worldwide average for women’s representation in the single/lower legislative house is 22.9%. This is below the 30% benchmark that, according to the UN, ensures a critical mass of women in a parliament; it is well below the 50% required for full equality.

With 26.0% of the seats in the House of Commons held by women, Canada ranks 48th in the world in female representation in the single/lower legislative house.

Canada is ahead of countries such as the United States (19.4%) and Russia (13.6%) in women’s representation. However, it sits below such countries as the United Kingdom (29.4%), New Zealand (31.4%), Sweden (43.6%), and the world leader, Rwanda (63.8%).

At the provincial level, three provinces (Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia) are led by female premiers, although a record six of the 13 provinces and territories were led by women in 2013.

The proportion of female members in provincial and territorial legislatures varies widely. Four provincial/territorial legislatures are above the 30% benchmark: those of Alberta (34.5%), British Columbia (36.1%), Ontario (34.9%) and Yukon (31.6%).

Women also represent 18% of mayors and 17% of chiefs in First Nations communities.

Why are women underrepresented?

Evidence indicates that voters do not actively discriminate against female candidates. So why do women remain underrepresented in politics, and specifically in Canada’s House of Commons?

There are a number of theories as to why women choose not to run for office, or are not selected by political parties as candidates:

  • Female leaders continue to encounter gendered notions of leadership, whereby the capabilities and qualities of men, rather than women, are seen to embody “leadership”.
  • Women may be socialized to have lower levels of self-confidence, to be less competitive and to have less political ambition.
  • Women’s political participation can be limited because gendered societal roles and expectations mean that women in Canada continue to hold a disproportionate share of household and caregiving responsibilities.
  • Women may have difficulty obtaining party nominations. Women continue to be underrepresented in the upper echelons of law, academia and the business world, and as a result, they have fewer opportunities to acquire relevant experience, financial backing and skills, or to develop the networks sought by political parties.

Once women are elected, their full and equal participation can be challenged by parliamentary culture, structures, operations and procedures that may unintentionally favour men or discriminate against women.

Efforts have been made at the international level recently to encourage parliaments to become more gender-sensitive by instituting, for example, family-friendly hours, parental leave policies, childcare options, or voting by proxy, as well as creating women’s associations or caucuses.

Related resources

Andre Barnes and Laura Munn-Rivard, Gender-Sensitive Parliaments: 1. Advancements in the Workplace, Publication no. 2012-40-E, Parliamentary Information and Research Service, Library of Parliament, Ottawa, 5 April 2013

Laura Munn-Rivard, Gender-Sensitive Parliaments: 2. The Work of Legislators, Publication no. 2012-45-E, Parliamentary Information and Research Service, Library of Parliament, Ottawa, 5 April 2013

Sonia Palmieri, Gender-Sensitive Parliaments: A Global Review of Good Practice, Inter-Parliamentary Union, Reports and Documents no. 65-2011, Geneva, Switzerland, 2011.

Conseil du statut de la femme, Les femmes en politique : en route vers la parité, 2015 (available in French only).

Julie Cool, Women in Parliament, Publication no. 2011-56-E, Parliamentary Information and Research Service, Library of Parliament, Ottawa, 2 July 2013 (revision forthcoming).