Gender Parity & the 2015 Canadian Federal Cabinet: Trudeau’s first history-making moment.
Today Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his Cabinet and made history by assembling a cabinet that unprecedentedly contains an equal number of men and women. It is a significant achievement that this has come to pass, despite the traditional “merit matters most” pushback from some in advance of today’s announcement.
For despite numerical superiority in the Canadian population, women have fared less well when it comes to representation at the highest level of government. Following a slow start in 1957, when Ellen Fairclough was appointed as the first and only woman in John Diefenbaker’s cabinet, women’s representation in the House of Commons, in the governing party caucus and in the cabinet has steadily increased over the last 50 years to the point where it stands today: somewhere roughly between 20 and 30 percent.
Under a first past the post system, achieving between 20-30% women in the House is considered pretty good. Globally we know that proportional electoral systems have long since been more female friendly than majoritarian ones. Moreover, parties to the left of centre tend to have a better record on selecting women to safe seats, thereby allowing them a chance of a political career, and thus selection to cabinet. The 2015 incoming class certainly falls within this range: 26 percent of MPs are women; 27 percent of Liberal caucus are women. Had the Liberals not made their promise we would have expected women to fill at least 27 percent of the seats in a 30-seat cabinet (eight women ministers). Instead, that number has doubled to 15 women ministers. This single day change propels Canada from the 30th position to 4th (tied with France and Liechtenstein and one ranking below Sweden) in the UN global rankings.
But as we know, not all ministers are created equal. Since the days of Trudeau Sr. the Canadian cabinet has consisted of two ministerial castes: full ministers and junior ministers – typically labelled ministers of state or secretaries of state. These junior ministerial positions were designed to provide support for individual or specific tasks within the ministerial portfolio. They are also useful in so far as they provide a fertile testing ground for promising backbenchers with respect to promotion into cabinet as a full minister.
The catch is that is not how it works in practice. Our research on cabinet career trajectories suggests that cabinet careers are, for the most part, fixed on entry. Those backbenchers appointed as full ministers typically remain full ministers for the remainder of their cabinet careers, while junior ministers usually remain at that rank indefinitely or until they are reshuffled to the backbenches and replaced with replacement ministerial aspirants. Moreover, we know that even amongst the list of full ministers, there will be highly prized and lowly ranked ministries.
Our research shows that female government backbenchers are much more likely to be appointed to cabinet in a junior capacity or to lesser ranked portfolios than their fellow male backbenchers. So dealing with the issue of vertical parity was always going to be Justin Trudeau’s biggest challenge. To ensure his promise was not a hollow gesture he needed to ensure his female appointments did not look tokenistic nor solely symbolic.
So how does Trudeau’s history-making first cabinet measure up? Twitter and social media have already focused (primarily positively) not only on his selection of 50% women but also on the diversity in appointments (two aboriginal members, three Sikhs, and a former Paralympian). The new cabinet also offers a more balanced geographical reach than did Harper’s. Moreover, he has ducked the difficulty associated with junior ministerial appointments by only appointing “full” ministers, although some of these full ministers appear to ministers of state in all but name. Regardless, this tactic has ensured not only gender parity but also salary parity.
In terms of portfolio ranking our initial analysis indicates that Trudeau has achieved a fair but not balanced spread (balance would mean every second line to be red). For example women hold only four of the top ten ranked positions, while women were appointed to eight of the bottom ten positions. However, taking into account prior experience and the size of the pool of eligible candidates, by sex, there will be many who continue to see this as a significant first step. Moreover, if our research findings from past studies hold, then all of these female ministers will have a better chance of retaining their positions, than their predecessors who began their ministerial career as Ministers of State.
Finally, it is clear that Canada has set a new international standard for the Anglo-American world. New Zealand used to be the champion of women’s representation: reaching 21% women in parliament under First Past the Post in 1993, in having two women prime ministers in succession over a 12 year period, and in seeing over 30% women in Cabinets headed by governments of the left and right. But today, thanks to Trudeau’s feminist instincts and his commitment to change Canada wins. We hope that this commitment continues beyond future cabinet reshuffles.
Matthew Kerby is Senior Lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. @matthewkerby
Jennifer Curtin is Associate Professor in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. @jennifer_curtin