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The Critical Mass

Changes Created by a Critical Mass of Elected Women
Summary of the ground-breaking research done by Drude Dahlerup of the Aarhus Institute of Political Science in Denmark in 1988.

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Practical Example – From Penny Priddy
I was a member of the Treasury Board Committee because I was Minister
of Equality. I had an initiative that I wanted very much to pass. It had to do with low wage redress, for both men and women. It was not about equal pay for work of equal value. It was turned down twice at the Treasury Board. I asked to come back and this happened to be a day when a few males were missing and there were more female ministers. Women made up one-third of the government. The women voted yes, the men no. The men asked to vote on it three times. Three times the women’s vote carried the policy. This is a powerful example of what happens when you have like- minded people at the table. Men would have rather raised union wages or other things. Critical mass does make a difference!

Penny Priddy, elected as MP in 2006, she held six portfolios as a minister in the NDP government in British Columbia in the 1990s

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A critical mass of women in politics should help change the culture of politics and provide a better democratic environment for women and men. When the demographics in elected positions mirror that of society’s demographics, a country’s full social capital is realized.

There is no one way of attaining this equal representation, as underlined by Honourable Monique Bégin in a lecture entitled Towards a Critical Mass: Women in Politics delivered in New Delhi in 1998.

A sociologist by training, Bégin explained in this lecture that, at the time of the publication of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women report:

“I … knew, in my heart of hearts, that we had one weak chapter: the one on women in politics, our Chapter 7 entitled 'Participation of Women in Public Life'. I wanted to see far more women go into politics, at all levels; I sensed how important it was; I knew nobody would give women power on a silver tray – they would have to go and fight for it.

“[It is] when I had left politics and started teaching women’s studies at the university that I understood the reason behind that weak chapter. Although we had interviewed every woman in Canada who knew anything about party politics, and had read or met our top political scientists, we had remained at the fringe in our analysis. Everything is there though: attitudes, prejudices, party organization and other obstacles in the way of women’s participation are all identified. But we had no key concept to offer, no intellectual framework of understanding the basis of our exclusion. This is not surprising since feminist scholarship started in Canada (and in the Western world in general) only after the report was released, later in the 1970s.

“The second wave of feminism, towards the end of the sixties, reconnected with the suffragettes’ goal of having women in elected positions, not so much as a matter of simple justice, but with a view to change public policy for a better world. Several approaches to overcome the resistance of the system were identified and tried. They basically fall in two extreme categories: reformist or remedial 'soft' measures having an incremental impact on electoral processes, and radical affirmative action imposing changes on the system, such as legislated quotas. Canada falls more or less clearly in the first category…

Although personally ambivalent towards quotas, I share on the other hand the impatience of all those who cannot accept the systemic obstruction to women’s political participation. In the final analysis, I would probably accept the notion of legislated quotas, and give it my vote, if imposed at a significant level (of 30 to 33 per cent or higher)which could truly move a society towards gender parity, and if accompanied by a time limit –say 20 or 25 years – in order to clearly frame it as a historical corrective measure.”
Monique Bégin sets the critical mass at 30 to 33 per cent or higher based on the ground-breaking research done by Drude Dahlerup of the Aarhus Institute of Political Science in Denmark in 1988. She then summarizes the conclusions Drude Dahlerup reached in analyzing the changes a critical mass of elected women has on political culture and practices.
“I personally find this kind of research a most useful tool toward the
empowerment, not only of women politicians, but of women. My critique, however, of a strictly numerical definition of the concept of a 'critical mass', is that, I am not convinced that 30 per cent or more of women who are not committed to women’s issues would affect public policies much or would truly bring women into the world of political power and decision-making. Some women can be just as ambitious and power hungry for the sake of power and control as many men are and ready to play whatever the game is to succeed. That will not advance the cause of women in society and helping to get more such persons in politics does not interest me.”

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