The number of women elected to positions of power is growing, but there is still a long way to go toward equal representation. In Canada, only one of our thirteen provinces and territories is currently being led by a female Premier, and women hold only 37% of the seats in the House of Commons. There are many benefits to electing women: they provide diversity of opinion, eliminate discrimination toward girls and women, draw more attention to women’s health issues, and according to recent research, correlate with better healthcare overall. This article explores the reasons why electing more women to positions of power improves the healthcare system for everyone.
Health Benefits for Women
A study by Dr. Carles Muntaner (University of Toronto) and Dr. Edwin Ng (University of Waterloo) suggests that female politicians possess attitudes and leadership styles that benefit population health. Female politicians are more likely to hold left-wing attitudes supporting social equality and civil rights, leading them to advance women’s rights in areas such as healthcare, pay equity, family policy and violence against women.
Throughout history, many women’s health issues have been largely ignored in healthcare systems dominated by men, with action on these issues only being taken by women themselves. A great example is Dr. Elizabeth Bagshaw, who established Canada’s first birth control clinic in 1932. Contraception was illegal at the time, forcing women to undergo numerous pregnancies (sometimes even annually) which caused them severe negative physical and mental health effects. Therefore, having more women in power brings more attention to women’s health issues that need to be addressed and solved.
Pay equity, family policy and violence against women may seem like issues separate from healthcare, but they have significant effects on one’s health and/or access to healthcare. Income is one of the social determinants of health and thus plays many roles in women’s access to healthcare. In countries without universal healthcare such as the United States, income may affect a woman’s ability to seek medical attention or pay for medication. As of 2020, American women earn 81 cents to every dollar earned by men, which could represent an advantage held by men when it comes to seeking healthcare.
The wage gap between women and men leads to unequal access to healthcare. (Image Source: The Huffington Post)
Another issue with downstream effects on healthcare is family policy. Working mothers often miss out on wages or promotions due to maternity leave or by becoming stay-at-home parents. France covers 80% of the cost of child care until the age of 3, allowing working mothers to avoid having to choose between staying home with their children and earning money or advancing their careers. Family policy benefiting women in this situation can help reduce the wage gap, thus making healthcare more accessible to women.
Yet another example is violence against women, which causes a myriad of mental and physical health complications, including (but not limited to) physical injuries, depression and anxiety, sexually transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancies, and issues related to substance abuse. Providing resources for women in these situations, such as shelters, legal assistance and therapy, can vastly improve their health and well-being.
Female politicians’ left-wing attitudes and dedication to social equality that improves both health policies and the social determinants of health for women are essential for building equal access to healthcare for women and men.
Health Benefits for the General Public
Dr. Muntaner and Dr. Ng found in their study that between 1976 and 2009, the number of women in Canadian provincial governments rose from 4.2% to 25.9%, while the overall mortality rate of the country from all causes decreased by 37.5% over that time period. They investigated whether more women in government and the lower mortality rate were related by examining how women spend government money. According to their findings, women spend more money in the four areas predictive of lower mortality rates — medical care, preventive care, post-secondary education, and social services — suggesting that more women in provincial government is a contributing factor toward Canada’s declining mortality rate.
Furthermore, political ideology was not correlated with the reduced mortality rate, suggesting that women play a positive role in improving public health whether they are members of liberal, centered, or conservative parties.
Higher education is linked with increased income, which can improve health through easier access to healthcare and better health insurance. It also provides more ‘implicit’ health benefits such as living in less polluted areas and being able to afford healthier food options. Studies have found a higher prevalence of smoking and diabetes in those without high school diplomas than those who completed college.
Social services are also key to improving health. The University Health Network in Toronto launched the Social Medicine Initiative in 2019 that will screen emergency room visitors with a questionnaire that can help direct them to community resources that may improve their quality of life, such as subsidies for children and housing. Part of the initiative includes the construction of affordable housing in Parkdale, an area of the city that is rapidly gentrifying and pushing lower-income residents out of their homes. The goal is to address poverty and homelessness by providing stable housing and resources that help put food on the table and reduce stress, leading to better health outcomes and reducing emergency room visits.
Agnes Mcphail, the first woman to be elected to the Canadian House of Commons in 1921, made improvements toward the health of women and the general public. She passed the Female Employees Fair Remuneration Act in 1951 requiring women to be paid equal wages for work of equal value, and lobbied for prison reforms that would improve the treatment of inmates. (Image Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia)
Studies in other countries have found similar results. A study conducted in Brazil found that more female representation in politics correlates with decreased mortality in children under the age of 5. This is because female politicians were more involved than their male counterparts in setting up two key social programs: the Bolsa Família Program (BFP), a conditional cash transfer program that provided families with welfare money in exchange for meeting criteria that improved their children’s health, and the Estratégia de Saúde da Família (ESF), the country’s main healthcare program.
As the percentage of female mayors in Brazil increased from 4.5% to 9.7% between 2000 and 2015, the mortality rate among children under 5 decreased from 25.1 to 13.6 per 1000 live births. During this time period, average municipal BFP coverage increased from 9.6% to 15.3% and ESF coverage increased from 25.2% to 54.7%.
With research showing that more women in politics leads to improved healthcare for everyone, it is clear that electing more women is important for improving population health and making healthcare more accessible. Studies have found that girls are often socialized to believe that politics is a man’s world, with American girls viewing politics as a male domain as soon as early adolescence. It is important that girls and women are taught that holding a place at the table in politics is achievable, especially considering that the politicians they see on TV or online are mostly men.
Girls should be brought up to have the confidence to go into politics.
A good step toward equality was taken in 2015 when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau created Canada’s first gender-balanced Cabinet. Slowly, more strong female politicians are coming to light, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a U.S. Congresswoman who is known for her strong progressive views (particularly on advocating for universal healthcare), and Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, who has led a very effective response against COVID-19. Young girls and women can view these female politicians as role models to gain the confidence and inspiration to represent other women in politics and lead the fight toward equal access to healthcare.