It’s not as bad as you think; it’s worse

Being an elected official is hard – the lifestyle, the travel, the strain on family, and the lack of work-life balance. Only a select few who have the fire in their bellies to run for office in the name of bettering society; or believe that it is truly the greatest job on earth; or are courageous enough to seek out a career in politics.

Having spent more than a combined decade working in federal politics on and off Parliament Hill, with elected officials from opposing parties we have witnessed firsthand how much harder it is for our gender. Women in politics must brand themselves as “serious businesspeople” to justify their name on the ballot or place at the table, while their male counterparts in most cases are assumed to be qualified.

Women face impossible decision-making right out of the gate – put on hold, or be strategic with their family planning, because spending Monday to Friday in another city from your child, especially during their formative years, is less than ideal for any mother. Women must be sure to not get too friendly with their male colleagues, for fear of developing the dreaded and hard-to-shake reputation of ‘being too friendly.’ Let us be explicitly clear; these thoughts cross the mind of every woman in politics across, up, and down the aisles of our legislatures.

We both have experienced different forms of gender-based discrimination and have witnessed the ruthlessness of gender bias in politics and, by extension, in corporate Canada. While we are fortunate to work for a company that is helmed by women, both in Canada and globally, and within which many executive positions are also held by women, we are well aware that many in our industry do not have the luxury of the supportive work environment we currently have.

According to a Canadian Press survey of female MPs in 2017, 58 per cent stated they had been a target of sexual harassment or assault at least once while in office. This is reinforced with the findings of the federal Standing Committee on the Status of Women’s Elect Her report, which includes the prevalence of “psychological violence” towards women in politics and the need for female elected officials to overcome sexist perceptions regarding their competency, intelligence, and likeability. Given these realities, is it any surprise that women represented only 35 per cent of all Canadian legislators in 2018? Or that within the last decade, Canada has taken steps backward in the proportion of our first ministers who are women?

Making real progress in electing and retaining female politicians needs to start with campaigns. Following the last federal election in 2019, a CBC analysis found that female candidates were more likely than their male counterparts to run in hard-to-win ridings, while only 23 per cent of candidates running in ridings considered ‘safe’ for their parties were women. All major parties need to do more to actively seek out and promote diverse candidates in winnable ridings and regions of strategic importance. And once these diverse candidates succeed in being elected, governments of all stripes need to consider how to more equitably distribute the positions of greatest influence: the Speaker, committee chairs, and significant portfolios such as finance, foreign affairs, justice, and health, to name a few.

Even when a woman overcomes the hurdle of a campaign to become elected, oftentimes, her likelihood of being appointed to cabinet is not assessed wholly based on her qualifications, interests, or track record. From our collective experience, we understand that the possibility of anyone joining cabinet is largely assessed based on: whether they are a visible minority, have an “impressive” personal story, and are in a difficult-to-hold riding that requires public profile. This is in addition to selecting cabinet candidates based off of regional representation and bilingualism. When a woman meets all of these qualifications, she may be considered a “top runner” for cabinet by pundits, but even still, is that based on merit? Or will she be appointed to cabinet because having fair representation in our federal government is a good headline? Is she even being considered based on her qualifications in comparison to her male colleagues, or are there two different categories to choose from? Equal gender representation in cabinet cannot be viewed as a “win” for women in politics – it is tokenism and nothing more.

To a certain degree, the process of selecting a cabinet is by nature tokenistic, but for female ministers, the hurdles are much more pronounced and difficult. Does that mean that women who are not qualified for high-level jobs are getting them simply because of their gender? Does it mean that women who do ascend to cabinet will be viewed by their male colleagues as only being there to fill a quota? How does this empower women? The same can be said for women in corporate Canada, many of whom fight to break the glass ceiling, and still worry that they are not looked upon by their male colleagues as deserving.

While equal gender representation at the federal cabinet table has been asserted since 2015, we still have a long way to go to achieve gender parity at all levels of government – this will take approximately 83 years according to an Equal Voice report released last year. Likewise, there remains much progress to be made in the corporate world, where between 2015 and 2020, the share of women in C-suite roles grew from just 17 to 21%. Although growing awareness of, and research in, this space are beginning to translate into real progress for gender parity, we all have a role to play in combatting deeply ingrained biases (including unconscious biases) that are faced by women in both the political and corporate world.

We may not have all the answers, but below are a few recommendations to support evolution in this true equality journey:

1. Be aware of, and challenge the unconscious biases that you may have towards women in politics:

These may include assumptions that women won’t prioritize economic matters, that they won’t work as hard due to “family expectations,” or that they will be “too emotional” when making decisions. Men and women must work together to find neutrality in their work. Regardless of a candidate or elected official’s gender, it is time to find compassion for family commitments and acknowledge the skillset and abilities of the pioneering women in politics today, and tomorrow.

2. Offer support and encouragement to women who are currently, or are thinking of becoming, involved in politics, especially to BIPOC women:

Women are not adequately represented in most governments across the world. By showing your support, you can help instill greater confidence in women to pursue politics and reinforce the idea that women deserve to be ‘at the table’ for their skills and talent in a field that has been historically dominated by men. Offer your support and then do it again.

3. Recognize the strengths women bring to the table, and celebrate them:

Having women participate in politics enables issues to be looked at from a gendered perspective (inclusive of all genders and identities) and can help translate into policies that address and represent women’s needs. The inclusion of BIPOC women specifically will guarantee an intersectional lens, which can empower under-represented communities. Better representation in government should be celebrated as a win for all of us.

Rather than expecting women to conform to the strongmen complexes that have historically accompanied political discourse, we should recognize and celebrate the diversity of strengths and approaches women bring to positions of power. Shifting our collective mindset is a long-lasting way of broadening awareness of the potential that diverse elected representatives have to better our politics and our societies.

4. Women in politics should focus on building each other up rather than creating divides between themselves and other women:

Women in politics already face perceptions that they do not belong in the political arena and therefore have to work twice as hard to be taken seriously. Women currently holding these positions should prioritize supporting one another, regardless of partisanship, to amplify the female voices in our political system and create a climate that is more welcoming of diverse representation and collaborative thinking.

5. Support organizations and institutions that advocate for greater representation of women in politics – especially organizations that support BIPOC women:

Men especially should not hesitate to voice their support for improved female representation in politics. Men’s participation in organizations that champion this cause will add significant momentum and apply pressure to forces that maintain the status quo, increasing the likelihood of a political future that better represents all demographics within our society.


Authored by: Laura Grosman, Sarah Dickson, and Sarah Kabani