It's time for "more Janes and less Dicks'' in provincial politics, former New Democrat cabinet minister Marilyn Churley said Thursday as past female politicians warned a gender-balanced legislature is unlikely unless Ontario residents vote to change the system.

At the current rate, it will take another century before half the politicians are women unless Ontario voters choose electoral reform in the coming Oct. 10 referendum and election, Churley said.

Churley said the current scenario is like something out of the famous "Dick and Jane'' primary school readers of the 1950s.

"It goes something like this -- see Jane run, see Dick run. See Dick win,'' she said. "To put it bluntly, we need more Janes and less Dicks.''

A growing number of prominent women have said they aren't running again in the coming election, including two Liberal cabinet ministers and NDP veteran Shelley Martel. That's left many worried about gender balance in provincial politics.

All three mainstream parties vowed to increase the number of female candidates in the coming election, but with nominations coming to an end, it seems some parties may not meet their goal.

"With the high profile departures that we've had recently, it's underlining the fact that despite the effort of so many and despite the pledges of all three leaders . . . it's still not working,'' said former Conservative finance minister Janet Ecker.

"We're looking at this upcoming election and unfortunately we might start sliding backward. We think it's time to consider a new way to select our elected representatives.''

When voters go to the polls Oct. 10, they will be asked whether they want to adopt the system used in Germany and New Zealand called mixed-member proportional or whether they want to stick with the existing first-past-the-post system.

The mixed-member system is more reflective of the popular vote and has resulted in more female politicians in countries that have adopted it, the group argued as it urged voters to consider supporting the reform.

"We think it is time,'' Ecker said. "In a society as diverse as Ontario, you need people sitting in that chamber down the hall who come from different backgrounds, who come with different experiences and different perspectives. That's what a democratic system is supposed to be all about.''

At least one high-profile woman being courted by several political parties said she doesn't see the need for concern.

Teresa Cascioli, who was CEO of Hamilton's Lakeport Brewing and brought it back from the brink of bankruptcy until it was bought out by Labatt, said people need strong leaders regardless of their gender.

"I never consider myself to be a woman, whether it's in a political role or a business role,'' said Cascioli, adding she won't run for office in October but hasn't ruled it out in the future.

"I don't make decisions based on my gender. I don't think we as a culture should think at things that way.''

Still, others say the recent controversy over a sexist photo illustration posted by a Liberal strategist underlines the need for more women to change the political culture.

A photo posted on Warren Kinsella's website this week suggested Conservative Lisa MacLeod would rather be at home "baking cookies'' than on the campaign trail with her leader.

Premier Dalton McGuinty called the posting "unfortunate'' but said he would continue to seek Kinsella's advice.

That kind of attitude increases the alienation many women feel when it comes to politics, said Michelle Dagnino, a member of the group Equal Voice.

"When those sorts of comments are made, young women feel that . . . it's an instant barrier to entering politics,'' she said.

Others didn't think "baking cookies'' was an insult. Tricia Waldron, Liberal volunteer and former president of the party's women's commission, said the posting was "not appropriate'' but people shouldn't overreact.

"We assume that baking cookies is a bad thing,'' she said. "Why is that a bad thing? I don't think it is at all.''