Second (or Third...) Time's the Charm

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Leadership Thursday, August 29, 2013 View Count = 1991

Second (or Third...) Time's the Charm

Academic literature identifies the nomination process - the process by which a political party selects a candidate to run in an election - as being a key hurdle for women to overcome in the electoral process, with political parties playing a significant role as gatekeepers of the nomination process. Little is known about how this process unfolds for both women and men in the Canadian context. Samara has even described the nomination process in Canada as a
“black box.” For newcomers to the scene - particularly women who are traditionally not as well connected to the political world – putting one’s name forward for a nomination can be particularly daunting.

As part of this study, six Members of Parliament (MPs) --two MPs each from the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP-- were interviewed to help contribute their experiences with the nomination process to the literature regarding women’s representation in Parliament.

Similar to the findings of Samara’s
exit interviews, all the MPs indicated that they were asked to run by someone in the political party structure. Generally, this was by someone they knew personally. Only one MP claimed to be active with her political party prior to seeking nomination, and this was the MP who was not initially deterred from running.

Most of the women I interviewed came from professional backgrounds that fit the traditional mould of an ideal political candidate. For example, four of them were either doctors or lawyers.

Yet all except one MP (the MP who claimed to be active in her party) initially decided against nomination. Half of the MPs interviewed were asked by other prominent politicians. Even an MP who was asked personally by the leader of her party initially said no – twice.

While reflections cannot be generalized to all of the women currently sitting in Parliament based on this study, they are still telling of a consistently identified trend in the literature: women need to be asked more than once to run.  

Two common factors initially deterred the MPs from running. Firstly, some MPs discussed hesitations about “fitting in” to the working style of the House of Commons. All except one of the interviewees described this through a gendered lens. As one MP said, “I felt like I would be boxed in as a young woman and that it would be harder for me to succeed.” Secondly, whether or not the MP had young children and a supportive partner was also a major factor in their decision to seek nomination.

What is important is that all of the MPs who were initially deterred were asked more than once and they received support in the nomination process from contacts within their political party’s organization. These contacts would, for example, help explain the process and put the MPs in touch with others who could help their nomination campaign. Given that most Canadians are barely even taught about the nomination process in civics class, this kind of help would be valued by anyone considering running. However, on some level all of the MPs interviewed recognized that part of their confidence and ability to overcome their initial, gendered reservations came from having party approval and assurance. These MPs wondered if they could really run. Their hestitations embody an American
study by Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox that found women were twice as likely as men to consider themselves unqualified for the job, even with the same qualifications. In the words of one MP:

I would not have run if I had not been asked and did not have the kind of support that I did. I can say that with confidence. And it’s not that I lack confidence, it’s that [running for nomination] just wasn’t in the realm of the possible for me…. Had I not been asked, I would be going door to door, working on someone else’s campaign.

Thus political parties play key roles as gatekeepers and recruiters in the nomination process. For most MPs, their “ask” came from a personal connection in the party and not an organized effort to look for an ideal candidate. According to some of the MPs interviewed, even when specific policies and targets for recruiting are adopted by political parties, these are inconsistently applied at the local level. Often, the reason for this is described as the central organizations of political parties not wanting to interfere with the grassroots process of local associations selecting their candidates. However, there are many times when pressure is exerted by central organizations of the party on behalf of a “star candidate,” with or without the support of the local association. This was the case for a couple of MPs interviewed. One thing is for certain: a more concerted effort from the parties to simply asking more women to run  would go a long way to getting more women to say yes.

Melissa Bonga completed this exploratory study as part of the academic requirements for the 2012-13 Parliamentary Internship Programme. The work has also been presented at the annual Jean-Pierre Gaboury Symposium at the Institute on Governance.

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