What the absence of women in provincial politics means for Canada

Op-eds Opinions

The gender balance in political leadership still has a long way to go

The Council of Federation, comprised of Canada’s 13 premiers, posted a picture on Twitter from one of their bi-annual meetings this summer. The picture is sparking debate about women in politics, because, as political scholar Dr. Sylvia Bashevkin noted, for the first time since 2002 to 2008 “there is no woman premier.” The picture provokes a rather simple and reasonable question: Where are the women premiers?  

Academic researcher Diana O’Brien shares some political insight. According to her, “women’s initial access to [political] power increases when the post is least attractive. When the position is most desirable, men are more likely to retain control.”  Political positions became less attractive when political parties are losing seats. 

O’Brien says the gender gap persists in positions of political leadership because “attractive positions remain male-dominated, suggesting gender biases…in party politics.” Which means that “[m]en and women…have differential access to, and experiences in, party leadership.” 

There are several benefits of having women in chief political positions. O’Brien explains that “[w]omen’s presence…increase the number of female candidates and elected officials.”  In turn, this “shatter[s] the glass ceiling…[and] also improv[es] voters’ perceptions of female leader’s effectiveness…weakening traditional gender stereotypes about women’s role in the public and private sphere.”

Unfortunately, in spite of the political benefits, the gender gap in politics continues to exist, even after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood in front of the first gender-balanced federal cabinet and declared it was time for such an initiative, “because it’s 2015.”

The example Trudeau proudly set in 2015 has yet to trickle down to provincial leadership, including the Liberal party he represents. 

Considering that it is now 2019 and Canada has no women premiers, should Canadians demand political action to ensure gender representation in political leadership?

Quotas, enforced legally or through the constitution, may be one approach political parties could strive for. Entrenching legal quotas could ensure that a certain number of seats will always be reserved for women to protect gender representation, making it easier for women to access leadership roles. 

However, to understand why gender representation is important, it is necessary to understand the democratic implications of what it means to practice politics without women. 

For example, how does the current political leadership impact Canada’s relationship with Indigenous nations?

This question must be considered specifically because Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission expressed that each and every single Canadian is accountable for reconciliation. 

But how could this expectation be accomplished when there wasn’t a single woman premier present at the Council of Federation in Big River First Nation, to meet with Indigenous organizations attending to discuss services for Indigenous families and children. 

Additionally, how can Canadian women work towards reconciliation and uphold the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, when there are none in political power to demonstrate this leadership?

The picture posted on Twitter of the 13 male premiers, the majority of them Caucasian, also represents colonialism and violence against Indigenous women. European, male leadership was and continues to be responsible for eradicating women’s leadership roles in Indigenous nations. And so it is necessary to ask, how does contemporary male-dominated leadership impact Indigenous women and their organizations?  And does having no women in political leadership also impact Indigenous women’s leadership?

With the upcoming federal election, we need to consider the broader implications of gender and leadership in party politics, and its potential consequences to democracy. 

This election we need to demand representation that will help us become a better Canada.