A photo taken at last year’s first minister’s conference in St. Andrew’s, N.B., telegraphed volumes about the provincial state of Canadian politics: it featured a line-up of 12 middle-aged white guys with a fondness for blue jackets and one lone woman—Rachel Notley.
With the election of Jason Kenney as premier of Alberta this week, there are now no women in that picture. For the first time since 2008, no women preside over Canadian provincial or territorial legislatures, bodies responsible for governance of programs with profound influence over people’s lives—health care, education, child care, and social programs, as well as municipalities and metropolitan centres. And there’s no indication that’s about to change anytime soon.
The all-male premiers club was a way of life in Canada until 1991 when Rita Johnston was named British Columbia premier, catapulted there by government scandal. Since then, we’ve seen 11 women premiers, with a lady leadership gap provincially between 2002 and 2008. Not one of those premiers, even those who led their government to a majority mandate, had the support required to stay in office for a full term or to be reelected.
The sudden paucity of female premiers in a country whose population is more than half female should be a national wake-up call. Canada may have a self-proclaimed feminist prime minister. We may have a much-vaunted gender-balanced federal cabinet. We also have a female representation gap at every level of government. Almost a century after Agnes Macphail became the first woman elected to the House of Commons in 1921, only 27 per cent of MPs are women, an all-time high. (And it will take 20 election cycles, or 90 years, before the House reaches gender parity at the current rate of increase, according to Equal Voice.)
Yes, a record 533 women candidates ran in the 2015 federal election; only 16.5 per cent of them were elected. Canada currently ranks 62nd of 193 countries in Inter-Parliamentary Union rankings, down from 21st in 1997. Rwanda is in top spot; the U.S. 79th. Before we get smug, the U.S. has nine female governors and a woman, Hillary Clinton, won the U.S. popular vote in the 2016 election. Canada has never come close to electing a female prime minister (Kim Campbell was anointed PM in 1993 when she was elected leader of the Progressive Conservative Party after the then highly unpopular prime minister Brian Mulroney resigned). Given the paucity of women heading major political parties (for that we have to look back to the ’90s), there’s no prospect of female leadership anytime soon either federally or provincially, save Elizabeth May, leader of the Greens, who occupies the party’s only seat in the House.
Because this is 2019, let’s not waste time suggesting that women aren’t as capable as men of stellar political leadership. Or that they (or some of them; women are not a homogeneous unit) are not interested in assuming power, as is the case with men. Yes, women leaders implement unpopular policies that see them voted out of office and are also buffeted by shifting political sentiment, just as male politicians are; they’re not voted out because they’re women per se. But even in 2019, female politicians remain hindered by systemic biases, sexism, and double standards, be it in media coverage, threats of violence, and hateful on-line trolling. Here paradoxes exist. One is that this would change with greater female representation in the political arena. The second is that the arguments put forward as to why women don’t run (family obligations, lack of networks, financing, etc.) point to the very entrenched inequities that need to be addressed by people with life experience dealing with them (nobody frets about the “work-life” balance of Justin Trudeau, who has three children, or Andrew Scheer, who has five). While in power, for instance, Notley changed provincial legislature sitting hours to better accommodate people raising families.
What we do know about female political representation is that it’s a Catch-22: familiarity breeds comfort; invisibility breeds mistrust. “The sight of women as government leaders normalizes the presence of women in these roles and challenges the perception of politics as a ‘man’s game,’ ” says Linda Trimble, a professor of political science at the University of Alberta. “Studies show that women’s increased presence in high-profile, high-prestige leadership roles boosts women’s political ambition and positively influences public attitudes about women’s capacity for leadership.”
Familiarity also mitigates media bias, Trimble notes, something she observed studying newspaper coverage of women premiers and their male predecessors in Canada and internationally, a paper awaiting publication. Seeing women in power undercuts the “gender novelty” that can result in biased media coverage of female candidates, she says: “We found that, overall, there was more attention to the women’s identities, bodies, and family lives than for the men they succeeded in office, especially in Australia.” This often stemmed from the novelty of having a woman in charge, they found. But in cases where a second woman followed a female premier, that second woman was no more likely to be personalized in the news coverage than men were. “Their gendered bodies and personal lives lacked the news value of novelty,” says Trimble. “So, this is a positive outcome.”
Reverse bias, on the other hand, occurs when women aren’t seen: “When women are scarce as government leaders and the few party leaders who contest elections are unsuccessful, they gain the reputation as ‘incurable losers,’ ” Trimble says, quoting the University of Toronto political scientist Sylvia Bashevkin. That was the case in the 1990s, when only three women led provincial or federal governments, all briefly, and only one won an election: “Rita Johnston and Kim Campbell only lasted a few months, and their parties were decimated under their leadership. Catherine Callbeck [former premier of P.E.I.] won an election but resigned prior to the campaign the P.E.I. Liberals lost.” Trimble contrasts that with the 2000s, when nine women were premiers of a province or territory, and “a stunning moment” when six women were in the first premiers picture. For over a year, from February 2013 to April 2014, Canada’s largest and most economically powerful provinces were led by women, says Trimble: “Christy Clark, Alison Redford, Pauline Marois and Kathleen Wynne were highly visible and their election wins lent them credibility and legitimacy as leaders.”
Canada’s female premier paucity, and the myths surrounding it, have become rich fodder for academic research. A 2018 study by Melanee Thomas, an associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary, “In Crisis or Decline? Selecting Women to Lead in Provincial Parties in Government,” detonates the so-called “glass cliff theory”—that women do not last in office because they are selected to lead parties and/or governments in crisis or decline.
Female provincial premiers have had electoral success, says Trimble: “Only one, Rita Johnston, did not win an election campaign. Marois and Notley brought opposition parties to office in general elections. And Callbeck, (Kathy) Dunderdale, Redford, Clark and Wynne—all of whom became premier by winning the leadership of a party in government—won new terms in office for their parties, extending the life of these governments beyond expectations.”
POLITICS INSIDER: The case of the vanishing female premiers
Trimble is currently working on Pathways to Premiership, a research project examining why women in both Canada and Australia have been more successful leading sub-national—rather than national—levels of government. The initiative, launched in 2017, is funded by the governments of both countries with the goal of helping policymakers increase the number of women in elected office. She notes one difference between the countries: in Canada, women have risen in government leadership roles across the spectrum, from NDP to Liberal to Conservative. “In Australia, all but one of the seven women state premiers have represented the Australian Labor Party. It’s an intriguing difference, one we will be trying to explain.”
There are both symbolic and substantive outcomes when women are in charge, Trimble notes. “Women premiers seem to be effective in recruiting women as candidates, as evidenced by increased representation in elections held when a woman was (or became) premier—this is the case for all jurisdictions except Newfoundland and Labrador. The big jump in women’s share of the seats in the 2015 Alberta election was clearly related to the NDP’s efforts in convincing women to run.”
After she came to power, Notley also recruited more women to run for the party. And she installed a gender-balanced cabinet seven months before Justin Trudeau did so federally. (Quebec premier Jean Charest did the same back in 2007.)
As nice as that progressive federal cabinet snapshot is, the Trudeau government could have actually paved the way to more women in office had it honoured its election promise to reform the electoral system. A mounting body of research confirms that countries that elect via proportional representation (PR) elect more women—and have more diverse governments. One much-cited 2012 study found that the share of women in parliamentary bodies was eight percentage points higher in countries with PR. Countries that vote under majoritarian systems—including Canada, the U.S., the UK, France and Australia—all share lower rates of women in their legislatures. None reach or exceed the most basic target set by the United Nations of 30 per cent representation. Countries with PR, among them New Zealand, Germany, Sweden, and Denmark, exceed the target, with Sweden topping the lot at 45 per cent.
PR systems don’t necessarily elect more women, says Trimble: “The key factor is parties’ political will to promote women and quotas. PR systems make it easier for parties to implement quotas.” In Canada, the combination of single member plurality plus a phenomenon referred to as “local riding association autonomy” makes it difficult for the party leadership to “sell” quotas, she says: “Put simply, executives at the constituency level do not like interference from the upper echelons of the party.”
The growing number of countries implementing quotas have experienced dramatic improvements in female representation. One is France, which introduced a parity law in 2000, resisted at first, that required parties to field gender-balanced slates, or face financial penalties. (Subsequent electoral reforms have seen a stall in equity in the country.) The NDP is unique among Canadian political parties in having an explicit goal to run 50 per cent female candidates; the party led national parties in the 2015 election with 43 per cent female candidates (the Liberals ran 31 per cent, just short of its goal of 33 per cent female candidates; the Conservatives ran 20 percent women).
The NDP was also the first federal party with representation in the House of Commons to elect a female leader—Audrey McLaughlin, who led the party between 1989 and 1995. Yet only one woman, Niki Ashton, was included on the final four-person ballot in the 2017 NDP leadership contest won by Jagmeet Singh. The absence of women at the federal level is important given the media attention to national politics and the resulting profile of national party leaders, says Trimble: “That no woman has been in serious contention to lead a party that has formed government since Campbell won the PC leadership in 1993 indicates the extent to which these organizations are old boys’ clubs.”
Now, save Elizabeth May, that’s literally the case at both the federal and provincial level. Trimble predicts it will be a couple of years before her team has findings to share. “Hopefully there will be some more premiers to add to the study by then!” she says optimistically before coming back to earth vis-a-vis Canada: “Looking at the slate of party leaders at federal and provincial levels of government, it’s not likely that a woman will emerge as government leader anytime soon.”