québec solidaire gender parity

Québec Solidaire aims for gender parity, critics cry ‘wokeism,’ imply women are less competent

“The simple reality is that gender parity isn’t attained with wishful thinking. It sometimes requires concrete action.”

Nothing makes some folks squirm more than legislating gender parity in politics. It’s a subject that makes many uncomfortable, some angry, and I suspect almost everyone slightly confused. It also lends itself to simplistic interpretations and hyperbolic opinion columns about how it basically amounts to “anti-male sexism.” Some critics see it as tokenism and “wokeism” run amok. Not surprisingly, those most likely to express discomfort are mostly older men since the status quo still benefits them the most, no matter how some will try to convince you otherwise.

During a Québec Solidaire convention this past weekend, members of the party’s caucus gathered to choose a new woman co-spokesperson to replace Manon Massé, who is stepping down. During the convention, delegates also voted to temporarily limit candidacies in any future by-elections (which most likely won’t even happen) to women or non-binary persons as a way of attaining gender parity and increasing diversity in a field overwhelmingly represented by men.

As soon as the announcement was made, I saw the predictable reactions online. Some were just pure political opportunism, like the faux-outrage overwhelmingly demonstrated by people who’d never — under any circumstances — vote for Québec Solidaire, primarily from Parti Québécois partisans who somehow failed to notice the party they’re supporting is an all-male quartet at the moment, and whose leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon can be seen in a video that’s making the rounds explaining why gender parity is so important and how, if he were to become leader of the party he would ensure that a minimum of 40% of candidates would be female. We see how that plan worked out for them.

QS’s decision not discrimination 

The simple reality is that gender parity isn’t attained with wishful thinking. It sometimes requires concrete action.

With the party’s current composition of 66% male and 33% female, QS wants to see more women join their ranks. It’s their prerogative as a party to take the action required and it’s perfectly legal to choose to vote for it, even though a former candidate who ran three times and was never elected (and who didn’t attend the convention), expressed disagreement later. As a result, and only in the event of a by-election, the party has chosen to temporarily exclude men from the QS nomination process in order to leave room for women and non-binary people; a decision making waves outside the party. 

So why exactly are these people so offended and shocked by an internal decision taken by a majority of caucus members who decided that gender parity and diversity were priorities to them? How is a democratic decision taken by a party you don’t plan to ever vote for affect you in the slightest? 

More awareness of the challenges necessary 

Because it limits the pool of competent candidates, some insist. It’s the one comment that I, frankly, find most insulting. Those insisting that “competence” should be the only selection criterion for choosing a political candidate are operating under the implicit belief that centuries of male dominance in politics and business and the deliberate and systematic exclusion of women from power merely has to do with the fact that women are… incompetent. 

In reality there are myriad reasons why women are hesitant to throw their hats in the ring as political candidates, aren’t elected as representatives and often don’t last as long in politics. In other words, systems of democratic representation we perceive as merit-based and therefore gender neutral are far from it. 

While I suspect that few Quebecers would be against gender equality and equal representation at the National Assembly as a general goal, it’s the notion of legislating political equality, imposing quotas or temporarily preventing men from presenting their candidacy that makes some uncomfortable. Some also genuinely worry about how obligatory quotas stigmatize women and set them up for further challenges. It’s a complex issue and I would urge everyone to learn more about the subject before proffering up an opinion. 

In 2018, I attended a Gouvernance au Féminin luncheon, where PQ deputy leader Véronique Hivon was quoted as saying, “When I first started in politics, I questioned whether forced quotas were the solution, but now, after nine years, I realize how systemic discrimination can affect things and I believe that legislation is required to increase our numbers.” The more you know, the more inclined you might be to change your mind. 

I’ve often recommended “Femmes et pouvoir: les changements nécessaires –plaidoyer pour la parité” (Women and Power: The Case for Parity) by journalist and writer Pascale Navarro as essential reading for those who’d like to get a better grasp on the issue. Columnist Rima Elkouri also quotes Navarro in her La Presse column this week on the same subject. The book goes a long way towards explaining why parity isn’t tokenism and does so in a concise and informative way. Unfortunately, those opposed to gender quotas are probably the ones least likely to read it. 

Women are still underrepresented across the board

Just over 25% of lawmakers globally are women, and the introduction of gender quotas (more than 130 countries have some sort of quota system) is a key factor behind many recent gains. Countries that have made the biggest jumps in female representation are unsurprisingly those with laws and regulations on the books. It doesn’t “just miraculously happen.” Sometimes you have to push up against a system firmly entrenched in its ways. In other words, if the game has been rigged from the start, you can’t always play by centuries-old rules to shake things up and pick up the pace. And we need to pick up the pace. 

I know that we like to pretend that Canada and Quebec are feminist powerhouses and women have it good in terms of political representation and rights, but we’re only slightly above middle-of-the-pack territory on a global scale. Canada ranks 59th worldwide in terms of women’s representation in government. As of March 31, 2023, only 31% of seats at the Canadian House of Commons were held by women, even though women account for 50.6% of the Canadian population.

In Quebec, the number of women entering politics has steadily been increasing, with women occupying 57 of the 125 seats at the National Assembly, which puts Quebec ahead of most Canadian provinces. But there are still many systemic barriers to women’s involvement in politics and we continue to have a political and social environment that’s not always conducive to effectively recruiting and retaining women in leadership and decision-making roles. Have any of you taken a recent look at some of the vile and threatening online messages female politicians routinely receive?

When legislated political parity and quotas are presented as a legitimate solution to some of the routine obstacles and the slow progress observed, the reactions are always the same. 

Why are those claiming “The priority should be competence, not gender” completely unable to connect the dots when they live in a country that 30 years ago elected Canada’s first and only woman prime minister, (and even then, for five short months) and live in a province that only ever elected a woman to lead a government once? South of the border, Americans have never even seen a woman in the top leadership position. You sincerely think this is random, a fluke, the way the cookie just happened to crumble, a lucky throw of the dice for man after man after man? Or is it maybe — just maybe — the result of a system that consistently creates barriers to real representation at the very top where important decisions are made that impact women profoundly? Austerity measures affect women the most, a predominantly male U.S. Congress has thrown women’s reproductive rights under the bus and the people out on the streets now striking and most affected by the Quebec government’s unwillingness to negotiate better wages and better working conditions are overwhelmingly women. That’s not a coincidence. The underrepresentation of women in politics affects women’s lives. 

No contradiction between meritocracy and better diversity

The most common criticism of mandatory quotas is they represent the exact opposite of a meritocratic system and actively discourage competence. Interestingly enough, an article published by the London School of Economics, “Gender quotas and the crisis of the mediocre man,” points to an extensive study that was conducted in Sweden, where forced parity not only didn’t adversely affect the quality of candidates that were presented, but in fact improved the overall quality. Why? Because mediocre men were removed and eventually replaced with competent women.

A study of 28 European countries also showed that gender quotas were connected to increased support for more female representation in politics, which in turn — you guessed it — increases women’s willingness to enter the political world. 

Earlier this year, Spain announced a gender equality law that will require more equal representation of women and men in politics, business and other spheres of public life. The Equal Representation Law will apply gender parity measures to electoral lists, the boards of directors of big companies and governing boards of professional associations. 

The uncomfortable truth for societies like ours that claim to have achieved gender equality is that some are far more unwilling to acknowledge that inequality and barriers continue to exist because they now see a few women in key leadership positions and therefore see any legislated attempts for more parity as reverse discrimination — the way some naively insisted that racism was eradicated in the US because President Obama was elected. But the old boy’s club is still alive and well in politics and continues to benefit men in many unseen ways. 

Whether you consider limiting candidacies in future by-elections to women or non-binary persons a questionable decision, proposed solutions that tackle complex, deeply embedded systemic issues require good-faith debates and analysis, not mocking retorts.

While some are hypothetically (and performatively) agonizing over the assumed incompetence of women who haven’t even been elected yet, let’s all maybe take a minute to grudgingly admit that there are more than a few men currently in power whose competence has been severely overestimated. ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.