Women must seize chance

Op-ed for The Guardian by Dawn Wilson

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

PR options offer best potential to increase gender balance, diversity in legislature.

October marks Women’s History Month – a time to celebrate the many amazing achievements of women throughout history. It is also a time to commemorate Persons Day, which marks the 1929 decision to include women in the legal definition of “persons.” This historic decision helped pave the way for women’s increased participation in public and political life. Eighty-seven years later we have another historic opportunity to help advance equality by voting for proportional representation in the upcoming plebiscite on electoral reform.

Despite overwhelming evidence to support the fact that increased gender and diversity at decision-making tables results in better outcomes, women (particularly women from non-majority groups) remain under-represented at all levels of government in PEI. In fact, the percentage of women elected to the Legislative Assembly of PEI has steadily declined from a high of 26% in 2007 to 18.5% in 2015. If the trends over the last three elections continue the PEI legislature will be without any women MLAs in just twenty years.

History and examples show the number of women in government does not rise naturally on its own. A concerted and sustained effort is needed to increase the number of women and under-represented groups elected. While the Coalition for Women in Government has focused on collaborating with individual women and political parties, it has always remained clear that the whole system requires a major overhaul to ensure a truly representative democracy, in which elected representatives reflect the diversity of the population.

Long before women had the right to vote or were considered persons under the law, the current electoral system, first-past-the-post (FPTP), was utilized solely by men. It is not surprising then that this colonial system has failed to meet the needs of women and diverse candidates and voters. It is true that women have run and been elected to the PEI legislature under the current electoral system and we celebrate those 26 women this month. Their voices and experiences in government have been vital, but we need more women, diverse women and under-represented groups in the legislature.

When we look at the democracies with the most balanced proportion of women, we find that most of these have some form of proportional representation. Research shows that countries using proportional electoral systems elect 8% more women to parliament than majoritarian (FPTP) systems. An 8% increase in women elected would give PEI a much needed boost towards greater gender balance and increased diversity in the legislature.

PEI has an exciting opportunity starting this month to vote in a plebiscite on electoral reform. Based on analysis of the five electoral options, the PEI Advisory Council on the Status of Women and the PEI Coalition for Women in Government identified Mixed Member Proportional and Dual Member Proportional as the options with the best potential to increase gender balance and diversity in the legislature. Let’s make history this fall and vote for a fair electoral system that better supports diversity and inclusion in our legislature.

Published in The Guardian PEI, October 18, 2016