Canada’s spotty record of electing women

Taking on the challenge of gender stereotypes in a nation tuned in to media and tuned out of critical thinking.

By Kari Michaels

Alison Redford was elected by party members as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, becoming the first female premier of Alberta earlier this month. This victory comes 20 years after the B.C. Social Credit Party appointed the first female premier in Canadian history.

Still, only two out of the eight females  who have beem premiers in Canada have actually been elected to the position, by the citizens of their province, in a general election.

Sylvia Dang

Diane Naugler is a sociology instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University who holds a PhD in women’s studies. Naugler wonders why the Canadian public in the 21st century still seems to have a problem supporting a powerful female leader. “Is there something about ‘powerful’, ‘female’, and ‘leader’ that doesn’t make sense to us on an intuitive level?” she asks.

She explains that, logically, the prospect of a female leader shouldn’t be difficult for people to accept, but this is still an issue facing Canadians and the ongoing problem stems from the way our society is organized.

“Gender still matters at these most powerful levels and, I would argue, at the everyday levels too,“ says Naugler.

Redford’s unexpected victory was a championship of change shaking the foundations of the conservative Albertan political arena. As the Province reported: “From the very beginning the 46-year-old wife and mother had cast herself as a new kind of Progressive Conservative, standing proudly outside of the ‘old boys club’ and open to transformational change in the Tory establishment.”

The National Post reported, “Ms. Redford had run the most aggressive, most rebellious campaign of the three finalists, positioning herself as an outsider.” This was a colossal political win as well as a huge leap forward in terms of women’s struggle to find acceptance and respect in leadership roles.

What stories will follow her success? As more women are breaking into careers traditionally dominated by the “old boys club,” what are we being told about their place at the top?

According to Naugler, the media tells us that women at the top are not very nice people. When it comes to the story about their male counterparts the ruthless business man persona is part and parcel with the position. However for women, the story is not so forgiving. Think about movies like The Devil Wears Prada where Meryl Streep’s character is so unpleasant she is likened to evil incarnate. Naugler says movies like this are a cautionary tale for women. They tell us that in order to be successful, a woman must shed her femininity. Anna Wintour, on whom the movie (and book) is based, loses her husband because she’s so caught up in running her business and she can’t pause to process the loss because she is so obsessed with succeeding in business.

“This is a really terrible narrative to be telling people who are aspiring to the top of the top,” says Naugler. She adds that the younger generation is absorbing all this information as they are growing up and trying to find their own place in society. They are hearing this message about the dangerous, unfeminine, shrill and unattractive woman at the top. These are personality traits that put their social belonging at risk, so they’re naturally not going to want to be associated with them.

There is a difference between chronicling a person’s expedition in the political or entrepreneurial frontier, and encouraging us to take on these voyages ourselves and tracing the map of gender stereotypes for the rest of us to follow unknowingly. The difference lies in the consequences we face if we trail off the beaten path.

For Naugler, the story reinforces the persistent stereotypes that men and women have to constantly negotiate.  Men are the breadwinners and women are nurturers for whom family always comes first. For most Canadians, the reality – the economic reality – is that two incomes are better than one and are necessary to facilitate their lifestyle or the lifestyle they aspire to have. With both partners having to work to live, (since there aren’t that many people in Canada that bring home $250,000 a year by themselves) there has to be a discussion around the expectations of one another in daily life.

Sylvia Dang

Negotiating daily life is something that has come to be known as finding the “work-family” balance.

Who is usually responsible for the work-family balance is what entices the economists, politicians, employers and scholars to examine these social roles. Studies are finding a gap in these roles where men aren’t expected to negotiate this balance. According to Naugler, women are working but they are still expected to be responsible for the family, so they are the ones who have to negotiate the work-family balance.

Naugler says that “male workers tend to advance faster in their careers. They tend to be promoted more often. They’re able to accumulate experience in the workforce that female workers, on average, aren’t. “

More women are attending post secondary schools and graduating with degrees. The Government of Canada reported that in 2010, a higher percentage of women (71 per cent) than men (65 per cent) aged 25 to 44 years had completed a post-secondary education. With Alberta’s new female premier and, similarly, the recent Liberal Party election of Christy Clark as B.C.’s premier, some may think women have won the fight, smashed the glass ceiling, and now are on equal footing with men.

Naugler thinks it might be harder, but not impossible, for women to accomplish the same things and more that men who are similarly qualified and talented do. The limitations placed on men and women are a little bit more taken for granted than we expect. She imagines the ceiling is more like a glass atmosphere and it’s not something we really think about as we breathe it in every day and make choices about who we can and cannot be.

“We tell our kids ‘you can be anything you want to be’ without accounting for the atmosphere that puts these limitations on the ‘anything’ for men and the ‘anything’ for women” says Naugler.

According to her, we only question the existence of the whole thing when an aspect of ourselves or our goals clashes with some element in the atmosphere.
It’s when enough of these realizations occur in enough of us and we put them together that we can really mount some change in the environment of gender.

“The work-life balance is an example of something that affects everyone, everyone, and the fact that we gender the responsibilities is one of those underlying considerations that we don’t think about in our gendered atmosphere until we’re doing it.”

She adds that a common question women ask themselves is why they’re the ones staying at home from work when their kid is sick. This isn’t unreasonable when you consider that they’re half the biology that went into making the child and they are half the love available to them yet they’re expected to be wholly responsible for caring for the child.

In April of this year, Christy Clark was featured on the front page of the Province newspaper with the headline: “Jersey Girl; B.C. Premier Christy Clark puts on a Canucks jersey while confidently predicting a Stanley Cup for Vancouver.” Would Gordon Campbell be given a similar name if he were still premier, would we see a caption with “Jersey Boy” instead?

To answer this we have to look at something Naugler refers to as “gender expectations;” the idea that men will like sports, be tough, display emotional restraint, and be breadwinners, while women will enjoy spending time making themselves beautiful, and care about their looks and fashion, are gender expectations and they are very familiar to us. However, they are normative because they have consequences. The consequence for the girl who doesn’t care to put effort into her appearance is that in junior high she isn’t part of the popular crowd and in the work world she doesn’t get hired while maybe the pretty, more stylish woman does. This is called the “beauty bonus” and “plainness penalty” and it’s been proven in quantitative socio-economic scholarship. The principal idea is that the expectations society holds for men and women are actually having an impact on their opportunities in the world. The more their appearance and behaviour conforms to these expectations, the better off they will be. This applies more-so for women.

“That’s why these things are so hard to change because the rewards are right there,” says Naugler.

“Join the club of normative gender – reap the benefits of social success. Don’t join and experience the consequences, and the consequences are both economic and symbolic…and social.”

The problem with this gendering of responsibilities is it’s based on stereotypes and expectations of gender which is a socially constructed idea and it is reinforced by everything we surround ourselves with.  Naugler says that gender is more than biology. As individuals, and members of various groups in society, we make gender mean what it is because although physical facts about our biology are a part of the construction of gender, it’s because the meanings we create in society about our biological sex determine who we become.

Ontario NDP Leader and single mother, Andrea Horwath, was on a morning radio talk show where the middle-aged, white, and male DJ’s asked her if she succeeded in becoming the premier would she only date other premiers. “Have you thought about being a single premier?” they ask and then they then go on to ask her what her “type” is and if they could play match maker. A similar question was posed to Christy Clark, also a single mother, earlier this year.

“So much of the expectations about who a woman is are centred around her appearance and her relational status, that somehow there doesn’t seem to be as much room in the popular consciousness to consider her ideas and her experience and I think that’s one of the persistent imbalances of gender that still is operative in our social world and has real consequences for people’s opportunities and limitations,” says Naugler.

Ms. Magazine recently published an online article written by Ariel Dougherty outlining the cost of a non-diverse media.  Dougherty points out that in the U.S. “Over 12 % of households are run by unmarried women. Among African American women, that figure leaps to 29.1 %. But the stories of how these women are struggling to feed their families are missing from the airwaves.”

So when Christy Clark and Andrea Horwath are being asked if they can handle public office and be a single mother, the media is focussing on the wrong issue.

Naugler describes the single mother as a kind of boogie woman in society. The media doesn’t represent her because she’s the story of what happens when women are unsuccessful at being women and she gets blamed for it. Media doesn’t develop television shows about the true story of the single mother who has so much determination, love, intelligence and character because they wouldn’t be popular and profitable. That’s not because it wouldn’t be interesting but because the audience is so uninformed about the real story if they saw it they wouldn’t buy it.

“Popular media can only reflect popular attitude even if the attitude’s wrong; even if it’s factually and anecdotally wrong,” says Naugler.

Some of the stats featured in the Ms. article include: a dismal 13.5 per cent of guests on U.S. Sunday public affairs shows are women and only 28 per cent of space in U.S. and Canadian media is devoted to women’s issues. On these shows there are experts telling us “this is what is important right now” and very few of them are women.

Naugler explains that it’s disturbing that so few of them are women because it creates two impressions: 1) female experts in important fields of work and study don’t exist and 2) they never will.

Doubt is the cost of this lack of visibility in the media. Think of what this means in daily life when a woman who does have expert knowledge is talking about these “important issues.” It is going to be difficult for her to be persuasive. The fact that so many Canadians see media as an important source of information in our society and that it does not show women in equal and significant numbers means that this feeds into the gender gap apparent in Canadian political and business leadership. The credibility of women who take on these roles is heavily criticized because media reinforces the gendered expectations we have about women and where they belong. She comments that it will be interesting to see if either Clark and Redford will win the popular vote as premiers. So far there hasn’t been much to indicate it is likely to occur.

Naugler has hope for change in prevailing Canadian attitudes. As conversations like this happen, as more articles about gender are written, as more stats come out like the one on education, change will come.  But the change is slow and won’t come about because people figured out about it and waited quietly for the rest of us to catch up.

It takes people taking action, working together and forming groups. Movements like civil rights, gay rights and feminism are all proof that reality is created by society – by us – and when it doesn’t represent all of us, we need to change it. Until there is a social reality formed that more of us feel comfortable in, the fight for change needs to continue to happen.

“I think that’s an important goal,” says Naugler, “We as members of society need to stop seeing society as something that happens around us and see society as something that happens through us. That our actions, our thoughts, our desires and goals are part of what make society. Society is not “out there” it’s in us and therefore we can make a difference if we really want to.”

The next time you’re watching TV or reading the newspaper ask yourself this:

Who is the media telling you you are?

Who are we, as a society, telling us we can be?

Diane Naugler will be teaching Sociology 3245: Gender, Bodies, and Sexualities on Surrey campus in Spring 2012.