Feb. 1, 2019

Will it always be a man's world? The push for equal representation in politics

As more women get elected to public office in countries around the globe, researchers study the effect they have on political landscapes, as well as the deeply entrenched barriers they still face in politics.

Annie Gale started her political career shortly after moving to Calgary in 1912 because she wanted to be able to buy produce from local farmers in local shops, instead of being forced to buy from merchants who brought in all their fruits and vegetables from British Columbia. The daughter of a British shopkeeper, Gale was elected to Calgary City Council in 1917 — the first female alderman in Canada. The next year, when she was elected acting mayor, Gale became the first woman in the Commonwealth to run a municipality.

The same year Gale was elected a Calgary alderman, up the road, in Edmonton, Louise McKinney was sworn in as a member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta — the first woman in the British Empire to be elected to a legislature. Ten years later, McKinney was one of the Famous Five who fought to have women declared “persons” under the law.

Canada has accrued a long list of “firsts” for women in politics, from Gale becoming the first alderman to Ellen Fairclough becoming the first federal cabinet minister in 1957 to Kim Campbell becoming the first female prime minister in 1993. “The time will come, I honestly and firmly believe, when women will be equally represented with men on all government boards and councils,” Gale wrote.  “The viewpoint of women is essential.”

About 100 years after Gale penned those words in Calgary, Alberta’s 2015 provincial election saw New Democrat Rachel Notley topple a 44-year run of the governing Conservative party. The election also delivered another surprise: of the 53 New Democrats elected in Alberta that spring, 25 were women and 28 were men, the closest yet Canada has come to a gender-balanced governing caucus.

A few months after Notley took power, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Canada’s first gender-balanced cabinet — 15 women and 15 men, plus the prime minister. When asked why he wanted equal numbers of women and men to serve as his cabinet ministers, Trudeau told the news cameras: “Because it's 2015.”

The comment received glowing international attention and near-universal praise here at home. “We didn’t find much criticism on the record,” says Dr. Melanee Thomas, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science in UCalgary's Faculty of Arts, who researches political attitudes and behaviour. “Most of the news stories and columns were overwhelmingly positive.”

Perhaps, as Gale predicted, the time for equal gender representation has finally come.

Beyond keeping track of the ever-growing tally of female political achievements and policies, scholars at the University of Calgary are studying the opportunities and obstacles facing women in politics here at home and around the world.

Beyond party and country lines

While Justin Trudeau, a Liberal, was the first Canadian prime minister to appoint an equal number of men and women to his cabinet, his predecessor, Conservative Stephen Harper, also appointed a number of women. Over the decades, Conservative governments have hit many of the gender milestones in Canada where numbers are concerned. “The first woman federal cabinet minister was Conservative. And the first prime minister to appoint more than one woman was also a Conservative, Brian Mulroney,” says Dr. Susan Franceschet, PhD, a political science professor in UCalgary's Faculty of Arts. “He appointed four and the previous Liberal government only appointed one.”

In the 2018 midterm elections in the United States, a record number of women ran for and won office, including the youngest-ever woman and the first Muslim and Native American women to sit in the U.S. House of Representatives. But despite historic gains electing women to office in Canada and the U.S., both countries are falling behind other parts of the world when it comes to female representation.

“Countries like Canada and the U.S. used to be in the top 20 globally in terms of women’s representation but they’re now getting closer to the bottom,” says Franceschet, co-editor of The Palgrave Handbook of Women’s Political Rights. That’s because other countries around the world — in Asia, Africa and Latin America — are introducing electoral laws that require political parties to nominate a certain percentage of women. “It’s leading to big jumps in the number of women elected in these countries,” she says. “The global average of women in government is growing spectacularly.”

How electing women changes politics

Electing more women is expanding countries’ legislative agendas. When Argentina brought in a gender quota law in 1991, one of the first countries in the world to do so, the country’s laws started covering more aspects of society.

“We found a significant increase in legislative initiatives that dealt with reproductive rights, violence against women and sexual harassment in the workplace,” says Franceschet. “It was striking how much more active government was on these things with more women elected.” The same thing happens in every country that elects more women. An abundance of research shows more women in power changes their country’s policy agenda.

The same thing happens in every country that elects more women.

Having more women at the table also gives people more confidence in the decisions that are made there. “If there are no women or members of minority groups at the table then people don’t necessarily believe in the legitimacy of the decision reached by these groups,” says Franceschet. “People distrust decisions that are made by really homogenous groups. More than ever before, cabinets without significant numbers of women are viewed suspiciously.”

Illustration of a ballot box

Electing women to public office seems to change a country's legislative agenda.

Electing more female politicians also widens the view the general public has about women. “It has an incredible effect on public opinion and the beliefs about appropriate roles for men and women and women’s leadership capacities," says Franceschet. “It also sparks greater political interest among women.”

When your leaders are homogenous, “you are cuing to people that this is the group that politics is for, rather than cuing you are actually including everybody,” she says.  That’s why it’s heartening to see more and more cabinets around the world including an equal number of women and men, and more people of ethnically diverse backgrounds. “Nowadays, when most leaders are putting together a governing cabinet, they’re aware that they have to include women and that they can’t just include one or two,” says Franceschet. “And, that’s a really impressive and encouraging trend.”

This trend may help change views about female leadership. Thomas’ ongoing research in Canada indicates that about 20 per cent of the country’s population is sexist when it comes to women and politics. “They think that men are naturally better leaders than women," she says, "and that women are too emotional or too nice for politics.” These views hold regardless of level of education and across the political spectrum, although “men on the right who identify as conservative and who are older are more likely to say this explicitly,” says Thomas.  

Our political self-esteem

Thomas has also found that in Canada, there is a discrepancy between how men and women view their own ability in the political realm; that is, their “political self-esteem” about how effective they are as a citizen engaging in politics. “Women are less likely to be interested in politics than men, and women are less confident in their political abilities then men,” says Thomas. This gender gap is “sticky and persistent and doesn’t change over time.”

As for why, Thomas has a couple of theories. For one, women are consistently stereotyped as generally less politically competent than men. “Politics are sexist and there is something about sexism being pervasive in politics that I think has really pernicious effects on individual women as citizens,” she says.

Her research using objective self-evaluations from Canadians indicates that the wealthier a man is, the more likely he is to engage in politics. But this doesn’t hold true for women. And while men in the bottom third of income brackets continue to be interested in politics and have some confidence in their abilities in the political realm, women in the bottom third income bracket “take a big hit.” Canadian women’s confidence in their political abilities drops significantly the lower the income. “In Canada, money engages men in ways it doesn’t engage women and the lack of money really hurts women in ways it doesn’t hurt men,” says Thomas.

The case for quotas

Scholars have found that quotas have a “remarkable” effect on getting more women elected into office.  Critics of affirmative action, quotas or other programs that encourage more women or minorities in public roles often argue that candidates or cabinet ministers should be chosen by merit, not gender or some other status. But that argument is “problematic,” says Franceschet.

“Women haven’t been in politics not because they’re unqualified, but rather because the selection has always been very much in these networks of political elites and women have been kept out of that,” she says.  Members of “the old boys’ club” tend to look out for each other. Implementing gender quotas or representative requirements for women or minorities “is a way of forcing people who are selecting to look beyond the usual eligibility pool.”

Women haven’t been in politics not because they’re unqualified.

Further, there are systemic biases at play that prevent women and other groups from advancing in politics. These biases relate to past legal restrictions on voting, says Thomas, who has co-written a book chapter on the topic. “Women with property couldn’t vote in Canada in the 19th century. We had long-standing racial restrictions on the vote. The systemic bias that was once legally entrenched still continues to this day.”

The argument against quotas is further diminished, scholars argue, when you examine the reality of how leaders chose their cabinets. In a big, diverse country like Canada, prime ministers are expected to select cabinet ministers from each and every region to ensure each corner of the country has representation at the table. “It’s not like we’re looking for the person who is the smartest or who knows the most, we’re always looking for a balance of people with political skill, policy expertise and people who represent the country,” says Franceschet.

There is ample research that indicates using quotas attracts “super high-qualified women,” says Thomas. “These women replace mediocre men. But the narrative is always ‘Do these women really deserve these positions?'” 

In the media

While female political candidates were once wholly ignored by the media, they do garner more coverage today, although much of it is focused on their gender.

In looking at 13,000 news articles written about six Canadian premiers, three women and three men, Thomas and her colleagues found mixed results when it came to the volume of stories. “Men consistently get more stories written about them when they’re premier, but when you look at the word count for stores about men versus women, it’s the same.  Men are getting more stories but the stories that women are getting are longer.”

A woman in a media scrum

Media coverage of women in office is dramatically different from that of men.

Those longer word counts may be blamed on the media spending a lot of time talking about what women wear. “It’s really blunt,” says Thomas. “They talk about their clothes more often, in ways that they don’t do about men.”

Women face a far rougher ride in the media than their male counterparts, says Dr. Rebecca Sullivan, PhD, a women’s studies professor in the Department of English in UCalgary's Faculty of Arts who focuses on feminist media and cultural studies. “We still see a significant difference that is similar to what happens to women in the workplace in general,” she says. While male politicians are assessed for what they do — their policies and achievements — women are more often assessed on who they are and what they look like.

You get a lot of name-calling that’s often very sexualized.

“You get a lot of name-calling that’s often very sexualized,” she says. For example, Catherine McKenna, Canada’s federal minister of environment and climate change — who has a master's degree from the London School of Economics and a law degree from McGill University — is often called “Climate Barbie” in headlines and by online critics.

The abuse women experience on social media fires back and forth across party lines. “It comes from all across the political spectrum,” says Sullivan. “If there’s one thing that connects conservative to progressive women politicians, it’s the abuse they get for expressing their views.” Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, for example, has received an unprecedented number of threats from people opposed to her policies.

“We have a real problem with women getting elected in the first place,” says Sullivan. “Then we have to think about all the women who don’t go into politics because of the prospect of abuse. Not because they can’t take it, not because they’re weak, but because they may have children and other family to consider.”

Thomas sees this chilling effect first-hand while teaching undergraduate political science classes. “The women in the class are very politically engaged, but they say they don’t want to run for office because of what the media and Internet do. People opposed to women in office know this, and that’s why they try to trash women.”

Yet more women are running for office than ever before. But this incremental change is coming at “too high a cost for women,” says Sullivan. “We know that, looking across history, change can be extraordinarily painful. It’s time to rethink the systems that keep women out and the belief that it’s okay to draw attention to what they wear and how they look.”

Franceschet agrees. She hopes journalists covering upcoming election campaigns will ask party leaders about their commitment, or lack thereof, for gender parity in their caucuses and cabinets. Thomas too, is hopeful attitudes can change that make it easier for women engaged in politics and therefore better for everyone in society. “I think we can get to the point where it’s not okay to field less than 40 per cent women candidates,” she says. “I think as the norms change and this becomes a public expectation it will happen.

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Dr. Melanee Thomas, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science in UCalgary's Faculty of Arts. Her research focuses on political behaviour, Canadian politics, women and politics, electoral behaviour, and research methods. Read more about Melanee

Dr. Susan Franceschet, PhD, is a professor of political science in UCalgary's Faculty of Arts. Her research focuses on women’s political representation in legislatures and cabinets, gender quotas around the world, and gender and public policy. Read more about Susan

Dr. Rebecca Sullivan, PhD, is a professor in the Department of English in UCalgary's Faculty of Arts. Her researches specializes in gender and sexuality, and feminist film, media and cultural studies. Read more about Rebecca

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