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Understanding *Why* More Women Get Elected Through MMP

MMP Leads to More Women MPs

Why We Need More Women in Parliament

How the Electoral System Matters for Electing Women

Projected Increase in Women MPs Under MMP

Understanding Party Lists

How would MMP help elect more women?

Richard Matland and Donley Studlar provide the most convincing argument as to why the proportional representation mechanism in MMP will elect more women. They call it the macrocontagion effect.1

From Matland and Studlar:
“Macrocontagion is a process where a party responds to general political pressure from competing parties on the issue of representation by increasing its promotion of women across constituencies.”

The theory is that smaller parties try to differentiate themselves by actively promoting women in their parties. Larger parties then feel compelled to follow suit. They do so for at least two reasons:

• By nominating more women, the smaller parties show that there is no electoral penalty for doing so.

• In response to the smaller parties, larger parties will also do more to actively promote women. This is particularly true for parties who are closer in ideology to those who originally initiated the effort to promote women. Larger parties are worried about losing voters, especially women voters, to a party that is seen as more women-friendly. As each party reacts to its closest rivals, it too will feel pressure to nominate more women. Over time, the effect will spread across the political spectrum as all of the parties compete to show their commitment to gender equality.

You can see macrocontagion in effect in the Canadian system. For an example, take a look at this Globe and Mail article on the electoral pressure faced by Stephen Harper as he reshuffles his cabinet.

Why would the macrocontagion effect be stronger in MMP systems?

Under the proposed MMP system, a portion of the seats will be filled using a Proportional Representation (PR) system. The PR part is expected to substantially improve our opportunities to elect more women. Matland and Studlar identify three reasons why women are more likely to benefit from the macrocontagion effect under a PR system:

Macrocontagion more likely. The more parties there are competing, the higher the probability that one of these parties will make a concerted effort to promote women’s candidacies. This action should help set up the macrocontagion effect. Since Single Member District Plurality (SMDP) systems tend to have fewer parties, the macrocontagion is less likely to get started.

Lower political costs. There are lower political costs to responding to the challenge of increasing the proportion of women under a PR system. The difference is that it is easier for the party to balance the entire slate of candidates under PR than in an SMDP system. Currently, the provincial party as a whole doesn’t have much say in deciding on candidates because those choices are made at the local level. A PR system will allow the party to look at its entire slate of candidates— this will make it easier for members to vote for more female candidates to be added to the list or for the party executives to add more female candidates to the list (depending on how the party chooses its list). More women can be added to the list without having to fight entrenched party interests.

Losing votes matters more. Losing votes to another party matters a lot more in a PR system than it does in a SMDP system. Matland and Studlar explain: “In a single-member district system, a party’s overwhelming concern is finishing first. The margin of victory is a smaller concern. Therefore actions by a minor party that threaten to siphon off some votes, perhaps even a substantial number of votes, but do not threaten the dominant party’s position as number one in the district, can be safely ignored.

In effect, in safe districts we would not expect to see the dominant party pay great attention to minor party actions. Compare this with the situation in proportional representation systems with large district magnitudes. Even minor shifts in the major party’s vote total can affect their total number of seats. Therefore, even when a party is dominant in the district, it must take very seriously the danger of losing a few percentage points off its vote. The costs of failing to react will not merely be the symbolic cost of a smaller victory margin, but the very real cost of fewer seats in parliament.”

To these three reasons, I will add one more:

Centralized access points. Greater centralization of the party lists means that there will be one access point in each party where it will be possible to focus on electing more women. Under the current system, women would need to do this in preparation for every party nomination in every Ontario riding. This is simply unrealistic. In contrast, it will be easier for the women in each party to unite and demand a greater share of the list seats.

MMP is not a panacea for women

Yes, it will be certainly be easier to elect more women under an MMP system, but it is by no means a slam-dunk. Even if Ontario passes MMP, women will then need to push their party leaders and their fellow party members to be pro-active about getting an equal number of women candidates in prominent positions on the party list.


From Matland, R.E. and D.T. Studlar, The contagion of women candidates in single-member district and proportional representation electoral systems: Canada and Norway. Journal of Politics, 1996. 58(3): p. 707-733.

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