It is an honour to be here today with all of you. On behalf of the Coalition for Women in Government, thank you for the invitation.
For those of you who may not be aware, the PEI Coalition for Women in Government is a multipartisan coalition of individuals and organizations that came together in 2003 to identify strategies for increasing women's election to all levels of government in P.E.I.
As you know through your consultations in this committee, the under-representation of women in government persists in jurisdictions across the country, including Prince Edward Island, and despite more women than ever before being elected to the House of Commons in 2015, that number rose only slightly, to 26%. The numbers are even more concerning in Prince Edward Island, where women are only 18% of currently elected MLAs, just slightly better than New Brunswick. In comparison, we're among the lowest in the country in regard to gender in elected office, and well below the 30% critical mass identified by the United Nations as needed to make meaningful change.
Much of our work focuses on identifying and addressing barriers to women's participation; however, I think it's important for us to focus on why we do that work and the benefits that women and diverse perspectives bring. I won't touch too much on that, because Norma did such a great job of outlining some of those benefits.
Through our work on the Engaging Island Women for Political Action project, we aim to work directly with individual women, as well as to address structural and systemic change. Through the project we asked participants how parties benefit specifically from more gender diversity. The top three responses included increased perspective at decision-making tables, more role models and mentors for women, and better reflection of the diversity of the island population. I think those responses support the research out there, which was outlined earlier.
However, the coalition's work over the past 15 years reveals that women face barriers and challenges to political leadership because of their gender. There are individual barriers, maybe, like lack of confidence, but more often they are structural and systemic barriers.
Through this project, the coalition undertook a needs assessment process to determine barriers to women's participation, and participants identified a number of them, which I will discuss.
One was sexism or an old boys' club mentality within society generally, but maybe also within political parties, resulting in some women feeling unwelcome in participating in politics.
Another was home and family commitments, which Norma touched on earlier. Although gender roles are changing in society, with more men taking on caregiving responsibilities, we still hear from women that they continue to perform more of the unpaid caregiving for children, vulnerable adults, and elders in the home.
Financial inequality or lack of resources was cited. Women in Canada continue to earn less money than men over the course of their lives. This gap is even wider for women from diverse backgrounds, such as indigenous women or women with disabilities. As a consequence, women have less access to financial resources to run for office in the first place.
Online harassment and violence against women in politics is increasing, and it negatively impacts women in deciding to run for office.
One of the biggest barriers we've identified over the years for women in Prince Edward Island in particular lies with getting women's names on the ballot in the first place. We heard earlier that to have women elected, we need their names on those ballots. This is not unique to P.E.I. In the 2013 book Stalled: The Representation of Women in Canadian Governments, jurisdictions across the country identified this as a barrier as well.
History and examples show that the number of women in government will not rise naturally on its own; at the current pace of change, it would take Prince Edward Island 105 years to reach gender balance in the legislative assembly.
We feel a concerted and sustained effort is needed to increase the number of women elected, and it must include a combination of approaches to address individual barriers as well as structural and systemic ones.
I know you've received excellent recommendations from individuals and organizations during your consultation period. I'd like to take a moment to echo the recommendations you've heard from some of those folks, including Equal Voice, who work more closely at the federal level than we do. We very much work at the provincial level.
I will share some recommendations that we sometimes make provincially that might be helpful: increased funding for women's organizations that seek to advance gender and diversity in leadership through skills building or structural and systemic change; adherence to fixed election dates; financial incentives for political parties to run more women candidates; ensuring open and transparent nomination processes for parties; implementation of policies that support increased gender and diversity; support for caregiving, with access to affordable and accessible child care; and implementation of sexual harassment policies and codes of conduct for elected officials.
One thing we focused on most recently in Prince Edward Island is restructuring the hours of the legislature to accommodate members with caregiving responsibilities
In closing, we all have a role to play in terms of increasing the number in elected office, whether it's individuals, legislatures, community organizations, parties, or political institutions.
I want to thank you for the opportunity to provide some input into your process. We recognize it's not easy, but legislation, plans, and policies that not only ensure the equal involvement of women but encourage it are vital to creating an equitable future for all of us.
I look forward to your recommendations.