More Women Needed at the Top: What the U.K. Can Learn From Canada

Canada's new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made history this week by appointing the country's first cabinet with an equal number of men and women. In doing so, Canada has set a new standard for women in government—but Britain continues to fall well short.

In Westminster, only seven of U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron's 22-member cabinet are women (32 percent). Numbers, though, are only part of the story—what matters is also which women are appointed (and with what ideas), and where these women end up. International evidence suggests that women are more likely to receive lower-status cabinet portfolios than their male counterparts. In other words, as with other areas of politics, where there is power, there are no women.

Trudeau, who is a self-declared feminist, has bucked this trend in Canada, with many of the new female ministers given key roles. Jody Wilson-Raybould is the new Justice Minister (the first indigenous person to occupy this position); the new Trade Minister is Chrystia Freeland. In Cameron's government, by contrast, the top jobs continue to be dominated by men. Theresa May as Home Secretary is the single exception. Meanwhile, despite appointing a majority female shadow cabinet, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn attracted significant backlash earlier in 2015 for not naming any women to the "big three" positions that shadow the Great Offices of State.

Why aren't there more women at the top in Westminster? Many commentators continue to argue that increases will happen naturally over time as more women enter politics. But these claims are not supported by the evidence. Progress on women's representation in the House of Commons continues to be slow and incremental, particularly in those parties (including the Conservative Party) that have not adopted equality measures to ensure women's selection and election. Furthermore, an increases in the number of women MPs provides no guarantee that women will be appointed to cabinet positions, much less those with real clout.

It is not the case that we lack the requisite number of qualified women to deliver a 50/50 cabinet, particularly when the eligibility pool for ministerial office in the U.K. stretches beyond the House of Commons. In Canada, Trudeau has demonstrated that where there is a will there is a way. Women comprise 26 percent of Canadian MPs overall (and 27 percent of Liberal MPs), but make up 50 percent of the cabinet.

Beyond Canada, several other national leaders have sent a clear symbolic message about their commitment to equality by appointing parity cabinets, including Michelle Bachelet in Chile, François Hollande in France, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in Spain, and, closer to home, Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland.

What is required, then, is political will—something that Cameron has so far not demonstrated. This raises the question as to whether stronger measures are needed in the UK to ensure real change, including the possibility of gender quotas for executive office. Those opposed to quotas frequently argue that such measures violate the principle of merit and that our political leaders should simply appoint the best candidate for the job, regardless of gender. This, of course, ignores the fact that front bench choices are often made according to a whole host of factors that count as merit—including geographical, party political and factional considerations—so why not gender?

These kinds of arguments also assume that women ministers have less merit than men, when there is very little research evidence to suggest that this is the case. Indeed, comparative studies demonstrate that women in cabinets around the world are just as successful and effective as their male counterparts.

Why does it matter? While the link between women's political presence and the promotion of women-friendly policy outcomes is far from straightforward, there is evidence to suggest that women politicians make a difference. Indeed, one might ask whether women's absence from the political decision-making process in part accounts for the disproportionately detrimental impact of the current Conservative and previous coalition government's austerity policies on women more generally.

But, women should not have to continually prove that they deserve a place on the front bench. Having more women at the top is crucial not only because it necessarily makes a difference for women (though it may), but also because justice and equality demands it. And because, as Justin Trudeau has reminded us: "It's 2015."

Meryl Kenny is a lecturer in Politics and Gender at the University of Edinburgh and co-convenor of the U.K. Political Studies Association's Women and Politics Specialist Group.