Is Canada Politics still a good old boys club? For some parties, it might still be

Photo by Chelsey Faucher on Unsplash

Good ol’ Boys Club (top definition)
Male discrimination against females. Men who refuse to speak to, deal with, or work with women… — Urban Dictionary 2011

The 2019 Canadian Federal Election was held on October 21, 2019, to elect members of the House of Commons to the 43rd Canadian Parliament. During the election season, Facebook ads had been adapted by all candidate parties as a campaigning platform. All the ads are accessible through Facebok Ads Library.

Sample Facebook ads of the six parties published during the election season

In March 2019, Facebook launched the Ad Library — a direct response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal that hit the platform in early 2018 (Silva et al. 2020). Through its API, we are able to see who pays for an ad, the gender and age group distributions reached by the ad, the dates the ad is published and other information.

Facebook Ads Library header

Through the analysis in gender distribution of all parties ads, we found that although both male and female (and all genders) citizens have the right to vote in Canada, the equal inclusion of the female audience in election campaigns is not reflected in all parties’ targeting strategies. The findings indicate that three out of the six parties (Bloc Québécois, Conservative Party, and PPC) have their ads reached substantially more male audience than female audience, despite that there were more female users than male users on Facebook in Canada.

Overall Spending

The table below displays the overall spending and impressions of each party. As the two biggest political parties in Canada, both Liberal Party and Conservative Party had spent more than 1 million for Facebook ads during the election season between June 1st, 2019 to October 21, 2019.

Ad counts, spending and impressions of each party

The Liberal Party has put 12199 ads, which is the largest amount of ads among all parties, and six times more than the Conservative Party. It is estimated that Liberal Party has spent at least more than 1.7 million on Facebook ads during the election season, and the ads had made at least more than 185 million impressions. The regional and demographic distribution of people reached by the ads is examined in the following sections.

Gender Distribution

According to Statista, at the time of the election season (October 2019), women accounted for 53.2 percent of Facebook users in Canada. The gender distribution of the ads does not reflect the gender ratio of Facebook users in Canada, as shown in Figure 2. PPC’s ads spending demonstrated the largest proportion of male audience; 74.73% of its ad spending has been distributed to reach male audiences. The ads of Conservative Party and Bloc Québécois also had reached more males than females. The Green Party, on the other hand, has 64.45% of ad spending for reaching female audiences, which is the highest among all parties.

Gender distribution of ads spending in each party

Each ad has its own gender distribution. If an ad has reached more female audiences than male audiences, it is labelled as a “more-female-reaching” ad and vice versa. The number of “more-female-reaching” ads and “more-male-reaching” are counted for each party, which is presented in the table below.

Number of more-female-reaching ads and more-male- reaching ads

The proportions are then calculated to have an idea if a party has extremely skewed gender distribution in their ads; the result is presented in the table bebow. The results show that PPC, Bloc Québécois and Conservative Party have a substantially large portion of ads that reached more male audiences than female audiences. Out of PPC’s 66 ads, only 1 ad reached more female audience than male audience. For Bloc Bloc Québécois, more-female-reaching ads only accounted for 10% of all their ads; only one-third of Conservative Party’s ads reached more female audience than male audience.

Proportions of more-female-reaching ads and more-male-reaching ads

Gendered Ads Narratives

To further investigate in the differences messaging by gender, TF-IDF is conducted to extract keywords from more-female-reaching ads and more-male-reaching-ads respectively. The results are shown in the figure below.

Top 15 extracted keywords of each party, segmented by gender

For some parties, the segmentation of gender is obvious. For example, although there are overlapped keywords such as “tax” and “ahead”, Conservative Party stressed “maternity” benefits and helping “parents” in their more-female-reaching ads. In Green Party’s more-male-reaching ads, “Elizabeth May”, which is Green Party’s female leader was not on the keyword list; and instead of environmental issues such as “fracking”, they focus more on the economical keywords such as “economy” and “workers”. Liberal Party’s more-female-reaching ads stressed on strengthened gun controls (“ban” “military-style” “assault” “rifles” “restrict” “handguns”); their more-male-reaching ads seemed to focus on economic topic as well (“middle” “class”). NDP’s ads also have different messaging towards different genders. Their more-female-reaching ads have distinctive keywords “education”, “healthcare” and “housing”, whereas their more-male-reaching ads have “corporations”, “telecom” and “governments”.

The keywords of PPC’s more-female-reaching ad were generated from only one ad; the original creative body for this ad is “Watch our Veterans Policy announcement in Gatineau with 42 PPC veterans on stage. #PPC2019”. Since there is only one more-female-reaching ad, it is not clear if PPC had crafted the ads to deliver different messaging for female audiences.

The ad of PPC and its demographic distribution that reached more female than male audiences

So Is Canada’s politics still an old boy club?

For some parties in Canada, it might still is. Conservative, PPC and Bloc Québécois, had targeting strategies that resulted in reaching substantially more male audiences than female audiences. Because how interests or behaviours of the audience are targeted is not disclosed, we can not know exactly what had led to the larger portion of male audiences reached by the ads of certain parties. However, it raises the question if their targeting strategy indirectly reflect their hidden mentality towards women’s participation in politics.

Through TF-IDF keyword extraction, we also found that the ads have the tendency to speak about economy-related issues to men and environmental and societal issues to women. This gender bias in keywords and narratives might occur naturally also due to targeting specific interests that influenced the gender distribution of the people reached. The question raised by this phenomenon is if women are expected to “care” about politics for only certain concerns?

In short, the gender bias in distribution and messaging of the 2019 Canadian Federal Election on Facebook Ads reflects the implicit limitation of women’s participation in politics in Canada. Through the distribution landscape, we see that half of the parties are indirectly targeting a much larger amount of male audiences than female audiences. Through the different messaging, women (and men) more likely to be exposed to only certain topics and therefore polarize their social roles.


Facebook Ads Library:

Silva, Marcio, Lucas Santos de Oliveira, Athanasios Andreou, Pedro Olmo Vaz de Melo, Oana Goga, and Fabricio Benevenuto. 2020. “Facebook Ads Monitor: An Independent Auditing System for Political Ads on Facebook.” In Proceedings of the Web Conference 2020, 224–34.

“Statista.” 2021. Statista.

The Guardian, The Guardian. 2019. Canada Election 2019: Full Results, October.

Woolf, Max. n.d. Facebook-Ad-Library-Scraper. Github. library-scraper.

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