Set up to fail: Why women still don't win elections as often as men in Canada

It's been a century since women won the right to run for federal office, yet they are still significantly underrepresented. CBC/Radio-Canada analyzed the election results of thousands of candidates to understand why. We found women are more likely than men to find themselves running in hard-to-win ridings and to get less financial support. And it appears that this year's federal election will be no exception.

By Valerie Ouellet
and Nael Shiab

Sept. 4, 2019

When Haley Brown first signed up on the Liberal Party of Canada's website, she was only expecting to lend a hand as a volunteer in the 2015 federal general election. But soon, she was asked to do much more. "A gentleman reached out to me. He took the time to get to know me and asked, 'Why don't you consider running?'" recalled the 40-year-old Calgarian. "I had never thought about that."

Haley Brown, 2015 Liberal candidate in Calgary Midnapore.
Haley Brown, 2015 Liberal candidate in Calgary Midnapore. (Liberal Party of Canada)

The party finished vetting her candidacy the day the writ dropped. She got a choice of two Calgary ridings where she might run: Calgary Midnapore against Jason Kenney, the veteran Conservative MP who had held his seat since 1997 (and who is now Alberta's premier), or Calgary Heritage against Stephen Harper, the sitting prime minister.

The campaign was bruising. Her lawn signs were vandalized. Critics attacked her on social media. "My first political debate was against Jason Kenney. I was so nervous, and it was just me, where he had this entire team." At campaign events and, even around her own volunteers, she heard people calling her a sacrifical lamb.

Perhaps not surprisingly, on Oct. 19, 2015, Brown lost, but with some consolation. Her vote tally of 14,396 was a record for the Liberals in the riding. Brown threw her hat in the ring again in 2017 when Kenney stepped down. She ran in a by-election, and lost again.

"It's not just about getting women on the ballot to run," Brown said in an interview last month. "I think once you do get women on the ballot, they can win just as often men do ... but it's to get that environment and that support structure in place that you have a woman comfortable to run."

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Brown's story isn't an isolated case, according to CBC/Radio-Canada's analysis of election results for 3,882 candidates who ran for the country's biggest political parties in the 2008, 2011 and 2015 federal general elections.

We found that, not only did fewer women run for office than men in the past decade, but they were also elected less often. On average, for every 100 women running, 18 won their races, while for every 100 men running, 26 were elected. One of the factors explaining the gap: Women are more likely than men to find themselves running in hard-to-win ridings instead of in party strongholds.

Women also receive less money from their party and riding associations to fund their campaign. On average, across all parties, women received $35,838 in campaign funds compared to $40,162 for men, according to our analysis of financial filings submitted by candidates to Elections Canada.

Each circle represents one per cent of the candidates who ran in the past three federal general elections. The purple circles represent women. The blue circles represent men.

Across the last three federal general elections, parties recruited twice as many men as women.

We identified all candidates running in their party's stronghold ridings. These are constituencies where a party has won the two previous elections with a margin of at least 10 per cent of votes.

Being in this group gives candidates a great edge. On average, women and men in these ridings received twice as much money from their riding association and their party to fund their campaign.

There are four times more men than women in this type of stronghold constituency.

Almost all candidates in stronghold ridings won their election — regardless of their gender.

In other ridings, candidates were more likely to lose — regardless of their gender.

But since women ran less often in their party's stronghold ridings, they lost more often. Although they represented 32 per cent of candidates, they only made up 24 per cent of elected officials.

For men it was the opposite. They ran more often than women in stronghold ridings, which means they were elected more often. Although men represented 68 per cent of all candidates running, they made up 76 per cent of elected officials.

CBC also tallied the candidates nominated so far for this October's federal general election. As of Sept. 3, women represent 40 per cent of candidates, a record. But as in previous years, only 23 per cent of these women are placed in stronghold ridings — where they are more likely to win. We still found three times more men in party strongholds than women.

CBC shared its figures with all five parties included in our analysis and asked for comment. The Liberals and the Conservatives both said they are headed toward historic highs in their recruitment of women candidates in the 2019 election but did not comment on past results. Scroll down to see each party's full comment.

We also shared our findings with Melanee Thomas, an associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary. In 2013, she published an academic study on women's experiences as "sacrificial lambs" in federal politics, co-written with associate professor Marc-André Bodet of Laval University. She said she wasn't surprised by CBC's figures, which included the most recent federal general election. "You're still coming up with the same conclusions. I mean, it's striking how strong the replication is," said Thomas, whose work focuses on gender-based political inequality.

"I would say that shows systemic gender bias in the system that disproportionately favours men and disproportionately hampers the participation of women in our electoral politics."

Melanee Thomas, associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary.
Melanee Thomas, associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary. (Dave Rae/CBC)

Parity between the number of men and women elected is crucial, she says, so that debates in Parliament reflect the experiences of all Canadians.

Do voters contribute to these gender-based patterns? Our findings suggest they don't. Countrywide, we found that whether men or women win, it's with the same plurality. In the past three federal elections, men who won their ridings had amassed on average 24,105 votes, compared to 23,538 votes for women who were elected. The trend was the same when they lost: defeated men lost by 7,565 votes compared to 7,480 votes for women. Thomas says recent studies showed the same conclusion. "We have really good evidence to show that Canadians don't discriminate against women at the ballot box, and we have good evidence to show that they don't discriminate against people of colour."

In her view, party leaders are directly responsible for the under-representation of women in politics. "The leaders get what the leaders want," she said. "A feminist leader would ask for a parity slate of candidates. Parity in numbers and parity in terms of where those candidates are in terms of competitiveness." It wouldn't be hard to field a gender-balanced slate of candidates — each party only has to find 169 women in a country with many millions of them, Thomas pointed out. "Why can't you convince such a small number of women to be your candidate? It is baffling to me. They are just not doing the work."

It is worth noting that, historically, men elected in stronghold ridings will often run again and again. Parties are naturally reluctant to ditch those veterans in favour of someone new and untested, whether that person is a man or a woman. But even when seats are open, men are still more likely to be placed in them, says Thomas. Our analysis makes the same observation.

We also crunched the numbers by political party for the past three federal elections. For each party, one circle represents one per cent of candidates.

The Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) had the lowest proportion of women running with 20 per cent. The Bloc Québécois (BQ) followed with 29 per cent. The Liberal Party of Canada (LPC) hit 33 per cent. The New Democratic Party (NDP) had the highest percentage — 39 per cent of its candidates identified as women.

The Green Party of Canada is not in our graphics as it did not have enough elected MPs to be included in the rest of our analysis. However, in the last three federal elections, 35 per cent of the party's candidates were women.

We identified the candidates nominated in stronghold ridings for each political party.

While Conservatives had many stronghold ridings, only 14 per cent of candidates running in them were women. For the Liberals, that number was 22 per cent. The New Democrats scored 30 per cent, but they had very few strongholds. The only exception was the Bloc Québécois, where the proportion of women running in stronghold ridings – 38 per cent – was actually greater than the party's overall percentage of women candidates (29 per cent).

Unsurprisingly, candidates in stronghold ridings won their races more often than candidates in other ridings.

The Conservatives elected the lowest proportion of women over the last three federal elections. Only 16 per cent of their MPs were women. The Liberals were next with 26 per cent. The BQ (29 per cent) and the NDP (38 per cent) scored highest. For the NDP and the BQ, the percentage of women elected on average was the same as the percentage of women candidates, meaning men and women were elected in the same proportions.

Women who ran for the Liberals received on average $51,844 from their party and their riding association while men received $57,602 (11 per cent more).

Women who ran for the Conservatives received on average $54,013 compared with $58,722 for men (nine per cent more).

Women who ran for the New Democrats received on average $26,797 compared with $27,924 for men (four per cent more).

The Bloc Québécois did not follow that trend. Women who ran for that party actually received more money, $51,410 (three per cent more) compared with $49,810 for men.

We could not complete this analysis for the Green Party. The revised financial filings were missing for 79 candidates who ran in the 2015 federal election.

Three parties responded to CBC's findings by touting what they say will be historic highs for female recruitement this coming election. "We're proud to be fielding the most female candidates in our party’s history," wrote a Conservative Party spokesperson in an email to CBC. The CPC became the first party to reach a full slate of candidates Monday — with 105 confirmed female candidates on the ballot (31 per cent of candidates).

The Liberal Party told CBC it has already changed its nomination rules so that riding associations must "conduct a thorough search for women candidates and other candidates who reflect the demographics of the community, before a nomination can proceed." The party says it's already seeing results: 52 per cent of its new candidates are women. Overall, 39 per cent of all its candidates for this coming election are women — including incumbents.

The NDP said it always "takes great care in recruiting women and [setting] them up to successfully run". The party also told CBC it is on track to become the first to achieve gender parity this coming election — it plans to run women in more than half of its ridings.

The Green Party and Bloc Québécois had not responded to CBC's request for comment by the time of publication.

What about your province?

Proportionally, our analysis revealed not all provinces are equal when it comes to women's representation. We found fewer women elected in the Maritime provinces and Alberta than anywhere else in the country – starting with Nova Scotia (nine per cent), Alberta (13 per cent), Prince Edward Island (17 per cent) and New Brunswick (17 per cent).

Saskatchewan (19 per cent) and Ontario (24 per cent) were in the middle of the pack.

Newfoundland and Labrador (29 per cent), British Columbia (30 per cent), Quebec (30 per cent) and Manitoba (33 per cent) were the provinces with the most elected women MPs for the same time period.

Sylvia Bashevkin, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, says the theories on gender balance she was taught as a graduate student in the 1970s and 1980s haven't played out as expected. "One of the assumptions was that these patterns were likely to disappear as more women entered the paid workforce and achieved post-secondary and graduate degrees." However, even as the overall number of women candidates increased, the gender-based patterns remained, Bashevkin said. "Even if you have lots of women in those pipelines, it doesn't necessarily mean that the odds of success are going to be the same for women."

So why hasn't the political world evolved on that front? We asked Yan Plante, who worked as a strategist for the Conservative Party between 2006 and 2015. He vividly recalls his conversations with women the party wanted to recruit as candidates. He points out that an elected official must spend approximately 250 days a year in Ottawa. For a majority of candidates who do not live in Ottawa, that's a lot of time spent away from their family. "It's a real challenge to attract people to politics," said Plante, who now works for a public relations agency. "I think it's an even greater challenge for women."

Yan Plante, former strategist for the Conservative Party, prepares for the leaders' debate during the 2015 election campaign.
Yan Plante, former strategist for the Conservative Party, prepares for the leaders' debate during the 2015 election campaign. (Yan Plante)

To make public office more attractive, Plante says, Parliament could take a page from the private sector, where working remotely is more common. For example, elected officials could vote on legislation from home and sit in the House of Commons from Tuesdays to Thursdays instead of five days a week. "I dream of a political system where there are more women," said the father of two daughters. "Having lived it, it must be said: the more women there are, the more civilized the debate is."

Increasing the duration of each party's nomination process would go a long way, too, the University of Calgary's Thomas says. "For women, it takes them a little bit longer to organize the family side of things and to actually make a decision to run." Research also shows that the more women are in power in riding associations, the more likely it is that a woman will be nominated in that riding.

"It took me a long time to make up my mind," said journalist Anne Lagacé Dowson, who ran twice for the NDP in Montreal — in Westmount–Ville Marie in 2008 and in Papineau in 2015, where she faced Justin Trudeau — coming in second both times. "Jack Layton had to visit me at home twice! I had two young children. I had to really think about it. For women, there is a higher price to pay when you run."

Anne Lagacé Dowson, NDP candidate in the riding of Papineau, seen on Sept. 3, 2015.
Anne Lagacé Dowson, NDP candidate in the riding of Papineau, seen on Sept. 3, 2015. (Dario Ayala/The Canadian Press)

She said parties should be recruiting women on an ongoing basis rather than rushing to find candidates right before an election. "That's the problem. Recruiting women is more difficult. You have to work harder [to convince them], and I don't think that work is getting done, at least not enough."

The House of Commons standing committee on the status of women studies the impact of government decisions on the lives of Canadian women. MPs from all parties sit on it, and in the summer of 2018, the committee decided to tackle the under-representation of women in politics. Melanee Thomas and Sylvia Bashevkin were among the experts who shared their research with the committee.

The committee tabled its report this past April. Among the recommendations was the obligation for parties to make public their efforts to recruit women candidates and the creation of a financial incentive to include more women in election campaigns.

The chair of the committee, Ontario Conservative Karen Vecchio, says she has no illusions about the upcoming federal election. "That report, I think, was too little, too late ... Parties have already started working on all of that over a year and a half ago, over two years ago ... I think all of the decisions for the 2019 election had already been in play for all politcial parties."


This data analysis was done using election results available on the Parliament of Canada website for all elections (general and by-elections) after June 28, 2004, inclusively. The gender of each candidate was included.

We included candidates who ran for a political party that elected at least one MP in the time period we were looking at. Those parties are: the Liberal Party of Canada, the Conservative Party of Canada, the New Democratic Party, the Bloc Québécois and the Green Party of Canada.

Our analysis could not include the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut, because of the small number of candidates and MPs.

For the purposes of this analysis, we defined stronghold ridings as constituencies where a party won in the previous two elections (general or by-elections) with at least a 10 per cent margin in the vote share. Take, for example, a candidate running in 2008. If their party had won that same riding twice before — in the 2006 and 2004 general elections — AND with at least 10 per cent more votes than their closest competitor, then their riding would be considered a "stronghold" riding. If both criterias were not met, the riding was considered a "harder to win" riding.

The electoral map has changed since the 2015 federal general election. To determine if a riding was won in the past, we needed to determine which former riding matched up with ridings on the new electoral map. Based on Elections Canada data, we matched ridings when two of them shared, at a minimum, two-thirds of the same population (66 per cent). We were able to match 291 ridings with their equivalent in the old electoral map this way.

For 44 ridings, we looked to see, based on the last election, if an incumbent MP from the old electoral map ran again in a riding featured on the new map. We were able to match 25 more ridings on the new electoral map this way.

The remaining 19 ridings were excluded from our analysis. For the 2015 federal general election, we did our calculations on the candidates running in 94 per cent of the ridings. For the 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2011 federal general elections, we did our calculations on 100 per cent of the ridings, since these elections shared the same electoral map.

To obtain financial filings, we coded a computer program that automatically retrieved the revised financial filings submitted to Elections Canada by each candidate, from each political party, from the last three federal general elections. We matched each financial report with the candidate's election results using the date of the election, the full name of the candidate, as well as their riding and party. In 243 cases out of 3,786, our computer program could not find a perfect match between a candidate's full name in financial filings and elections data. No revised financial information was available for 79 Green Party candidates for the 2015 federal general elections. As a result, our calculations were performed on 93 per cent of all candidates who filed a revised financial statement related to the 2008, 2011 and 2015 federal general elections.

Valerie Ouellet and Nael Shiab — data journalists; Sylvène Gilchrist — producer; Francis Lamontagne — designer; Zach Dubinsky and Susan Noakes — copy editing; Stephen Davis and Lindsey Tsuji — additional research.