Should cabinet selection hinge on a gender quota?

By TVO Current Affairs - Published on November 4, 2015
oath of office for cabinet ministers
Justin Trudeau aimed for gender parity in his parliamentary cabinet.

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In the week leading up to Justin Trudeau’s swearing-in as prime minister, and the reveal of his picks for cabinet, much has been discussed about his campaign promise of building a cabinet team that reflects the gender breakdown of the country’s population. We asked three writers—a political researcher, a journalist and non-partisan grassroots activist—to reflect on what such a move means to them.

An equal-gender cabinet isn’t just progressive—it’s strategic

By Beisan Zubi 

Discussions about the ways race, class and privilege intersect in our society are very important—but if we want to talk about a pressing crisis of representation in our parliamentary makeup right now, it’s with women.

At 46 MPs, visible minorities represent about 14 per cent of this Parliament, and 19 per cent of the general population. There are 10 Aboriginal MPs, about three per cent of Parliament, contrasted with four per cent of the general population.

While more variety in the ethnic groups participating in Parliament would be great, the racial diversity numbers themselves aren’t bad. When it comes to women in Parliament? Well, those numbers are bad.

Even though women count for 50.4 per cent of Canada’s population, they make up 26 per cent of this Parliament (88 MPs). This figure represents a rise of one percentage point from the previous Parliament. At that rate, it would take 100 years to achieve parity.

Much has been said about Justin Trudeau’s campaign pledge to create a federal cabinet composed 50 per cent of women.

Some have argued it goes against concepts of fairness and merit, while others say it is a principled first step towards a semblance of gender parity: it won’t address the low number of female MPs right now, but it could provide inspiration for more women to get involved next election.

Cabinet members are already chosen through an artificial set of criteria, where regional and linguistic factors are serious considerations. A cabinet minister is expected from every province, bilingualism is an asset, and even Stephen Harper made efforts to include women and visible minorities.

But, as Laura Payton points out in Maclean’s, there is no way merit could have been the deciding factor in the tenure of many cabinet members. Julian Fantino’s continued ministerial duties, considering his epic bungling from department to department, are notable. More at play is that he held an electorally significant Greater Toronto Area seat and was symbolic of the Conservative tough-on-crime agenda rather than his actual competence.

Knowing, then, that cabinet appointments have long been a strategic calculation as much as an administrative one, the principle behind promising equal gender representation is only one factor. And at this point, it’s hard to disagree that it has been a strategic political move for the Liberals.

Every cabinet speculation piece has now been forced to proactively look at the resumes of female MPs. Gender parity has dominated the Canadian politics debate for a few days now. And finally, if you look at those most stridently defending the policy, it’s women.

Beisan Zubi is a political researcher and writer based in Ottawa.


In the context of power, gender parity benefits few

By Septembre Anderson 

Today, Justin Trudeau became the 23rd prime minister of Canada after ousting Stephen Harper in October’s federal election. With his transition into the most powerful political leader in the country comes the fulfillment of his first promise as prime minister: gender parity in the federal cabinet. It appears this first move by Trudeau has also been his first controversy.

Fair and equal cabinet representation of a demographic that, according to Statistics Canada, makes up about 50 per cent of the country’s population, has never happened before. Despite this, many Canadians have grumbled about meritocracy across the nation and insisted that the women chosen to sit on the executive arm of government are now there for their gender, not their capabilities.

But while the country continues to argue whether or not there should be gender parity in the prime minister's newly-announced cabinet, various groups of people all over the country are rolling their eyes.

You see, there's a wider representation gap between race than gender across a number of variables in this country. Employment, political representation and wage all see white women sitting just below white men in hierarchies of power and privilege.

Affirmative action, as Trudeau’s aim has been called, is a term that refers to the United States’ various changes to employment law and policy to diversify workplaces. The Canadian version is called Employment Equity, which does not, like the U.S. version, include quotas. However, like the American version, Employment Equity has disproportionately benefited white women to the erasure of people of colour. Trudeau continued this tradition of ignoring intersectionality and the most marginalized communities by instead focusing on those in the centre.

This move is similar to his campaign focus on the middle class: focusing on the most privileged and represented of the marginalized to the erasure of those most in need. Rather than stating his intentions to build a cabinet that reflects the diversity of Canada—including gender, race, sexuality, ability and other marginalizations—Trudeau instead went the safe route.

So, while Canadians bickered over whether or not Justin Trudeau’s goal of gender parity was the right move, the rest of us continue to wait and hope for a kind of change that history has shown us will never come from the top down. Next time, let’s start from the margins and move in.

Septembre Anderson is a Toronto-based multimedia journalist, cultural critic and public intellectual.

Trudeau’s new cabinet is a welcome—but also cautious—first step

By Alejandra Ortiz

As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his newly-formed cabinet today, many will have kept a close eye on his campaign promise of equal gender representation. While much more needs to be done in order to strive for gender equity in politics and policy, this is a step in the right direction. However, not everyone has shared this sentiment: when the subject of “affirmative action" came up in relation to this campaign promise, people were quick to react. 

It is worth noting where the criticism of affirmative action often comes from. Debates about affirmative action tend to frame the practice pejoratively, but perhaps this is because many influencers in mainstream media benefit from the status quo. These voices are already mainstream and amplified—it is precisely why such policies are needed in the first place. When it comes to women in senior positions, gender biases continue to prevail. Media and society are more likely to seek and value leadership qualities that are usually attributed to men. Consequently, there is also an onus on the media to bring those who are marginalized to the centre of the conversation. 

It is time for our conversations to move beyond the idea of “picking the best person for the job.” While no doubt these newly announced cabinet members should be qualified to hold senior positions, why do observers jump to the conclusion that striving for diversity somehow means sacrificing quality? This policy simply means that Trudeau has looked for a qualified candidate within a more diverse pool of people. Prime ministers typically strive for equitable regional representation in their cabinets; doesn’t it make sense that they seek the same parity in terms of gender representation? That being said, diversity and parity don’t stop at gender.

A self-identified feminist, Trudeau’s platform boasts of policies and practices geared toward reducing the gender gap in leadership positions. These discussions are welcome, especially since the previous administration made no effort to address gender issues. However, we must also hold the newly formed government accountable to ensure that greater gender parity in our senior political leadership actually translates into better outcomes for women and transgender people from many walks of life.

When it comes to parity, too often the discussion does not include other groups that are under-represented in Parliament, such as indigenous people, racialized people, LGBTQ communities and people with disabilities. The strongest affirmative action policies and practices take a multitude of identities and barriers into account.

No matter who Trudeau has appointed, we should continue to discuss the role that parity can play in a more equitable Canada, and push for cabinet members, public policies and civic discourse that reflect and celebrate Canada’s diversity.

Alejandra Ortiz is the Equity Liaison/Communications Co-ordinator at Women in Toronto Politics.

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