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Beyond Symbolic Representation in the 2015 Canadian Federal Cabinet

*** An updated version of this post appears at:


The incoming Liberal government will make history on Wednesday for one of two reasons. Either prime minister designate Justin Trudeau will assemble a cabinet that unprecedentedly contains an equal number of men and women, or the failure to do so will go down as the fastest broken campaign promise in Canadian history.

We sincerely hope that the former comes to pass. 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 center 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 could have expected women to fill at least 27 percent of the seats in what is probably going to be around a 30-seat cabinet (eight women ministers). Instead, and if the promise is kept, that number will double to around 15 women ministers. This single day change will propel Canada from the 30th position to 4th (tied with France and Liechtenstein and one ranking below Sweden) in the global UN rankings for women in ministerial positions.

Now before we go patting ourselves too hard on the back we want to present a caveat to the prime minister designate. 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 labeled 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.

What we think is more concerning is our finding that female government backbenchers are much more likely to be appointed to cabinet in a junior capacity than their fellow male backbenchers. And often this is done as an appeasement strategy. That is, the party may not be particularly progressive in selecting women for election in safe seats, so the symbolic compromise is to appoint them as junior ministers.

Justin Trudeau is already facing the challenge of his predecessors to assemble a representative and capable cabinet. The legislative arithmetic combined with a promise for gender parity will make that cabinet building task still more daunting. However, given the historical and lackluster prospects for upward mobility for those individuals titled Minister of State, as well as the trend for women to be appointed to these positions, we strongly encourage the prime minister designate to bolster his promise of gender parity in the cabinet. There must be gender equity between the ranks lest his ambitious promise be broken in all but name.

Matthew Kerby is Senior Lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia.

Jennifer Curtin is Associate Professor Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

Categories: Canadian Politics.

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