Three powerful women in charge of finance, defence and foreign affairs frame the Canadian Prime Minister during press conferences. It’s the first time in our history that these three top cabinet jobs have been held simultaneously by women. And in the context of the war in Ukraine, Chrystia Freeland, Anita Anand and Mélanie Joly are making decisions historically made by men.
Individually or together, these women are proof that gender parity in politics works.
Canada doesn’t have a gender quota law for elections to parliament. But Trudeau promised in 2015 that if he won the election, he’d have gender parity in cabinet. He’s kept that promise, with equal numbers of women and men ministers ever since.
The career progress of Freeland, Anand and Joly show not only that women are just as competent in politics as men, but that concrete actions in pursuit of gender equality have real consequences – for the better.
Freeland and Joly were in Trudeau’s initial team and Anand joined in 2019, first as Minister of Public Services and Procurement, later being promoted to Defence. Freeland and Joly likewise started out in lesser posts — Freeland heading International Trade and Joly leading the Ministry of Heritage.
In committing to gender parity among ministers, Trudeau was accused of favouring gender and ignoring experience or qualifications as criteria for cabinet. The refrain “but what about merit?” is frequently used by opponents to gender quotas. I’ve studied women in politics for 20 years, and there simply isn’t any evidence that gender parity comes at the expense of quality.
More than 100 countries around the world have some form of gender quota for elected office and several leaders in recent years have publicly committed themselves to gender equality in cabinet and other high-level appointments. Those studying women in politics have compared the credentials, experience and performance of women and men in office, finding that even when quotas are used, women tend to have more extensive credentials than men.
A study of Swedish municipal governments found that quotas improved the quality of the political class because “mediocre men” were weeded out.
In countries without electoral gender quotas, like Canada, there are no good reasons to object to them. Freeland, Anand and Joly are evidence that creating space for women in politics pays off.
Gender quotas or gender parity in politics has also been successful in other countries. Several of the world’s high-profile women reached national and global prominence after earlier decisions by leaders to ensure space for women. When pressured by women in his own political party to appoint more women to cabinet, former Chilean president, Ricardo Lagos, appointed five women. One of them was Michelle Bachelet, who went on to become that country’s first woman president.
Other examples include the current president of the European Central Bank, Christine Lagarde, and Ursula von der Lyon, president of the European Commission. Both were first appointed to their own countries’ cabinets by leaders who actively created space for women in politics.
Why does any of this matter?
The outbreak of war in Europe means that people who might normally ignore politics are watching now. And they are seeing many women, from Chrystia Freeland in Ottawa to Ursula von der Lyon in Brussels, making weighty policy decisions. The claim that gender quotas undermine merit loses more force every time we hear them speak.
Susan Franceschet is Professor of Political Science at the University of Calgary.