Alison Redford’s unexpected resignation has reignited the debate on gender in politics. Some declare that gender had everything to do with it, while others argue as strongly that nothing could be further from the truth. We think that gender was not inconsequential to her experiences as leader, as her experiences follow a pattern we’ve witnessed amongst women party leaders at the federal and provincial levels in Canada. In a nutshell, the pattern is this: The expectations placed on women party leaders are greater, their mandates weaker and their tenures shorter.
There is no question that the situation for women as leaders has improved over time. Women currently lead roughly one quarter of the parties holding seats in Canadian legislatures, a percentage comparable to the level of representation in legislatures overall. They also lead a variety of parties, including ones as diverse as Québec Solidaire and Alberta Wildrose. Yet when we examined leadership data for federal and provincial party leaders in Canada between 1980 and 2005, we found that women’s experiences are party leaders differ profoundly from men’s.
First, the expectations placed on women party leaders are greater. Women are more likely than men, by about 25 percentage points, to be chosen to lead minor parties that were not serious contenders for power at the time of their selection. When we shift the gaze to major parties, the glass cliff phenomenon of women being more likely to be chosen to lead parties in electorally challenging situations appears. Christy Clark in B.C., Alison Redford in Alberta and Olive Crane of PEI were chosen when there were serious doubts about their party’s electoral chances. Pauline Marois was selected when the Action Démocratique du Québec had displaced the Parti Québécois as the official opposition in the previous election. Kathleen Wynne was chosen to lead the Ontario Liberals with the party in a precarious minority situation. Ms. Redford and Ms. Clark brought their parties back from the electoral precipice, but not even this miracle was enough to secure Ms. Redford another shot at an election.
Second, women party leaders are offered weaker support by the party that selects them as leaders than men. Focusing exclusively on major parties, women are on average likely to garner 57 per cent of the leadership vote; men, on the other hand, are likely to gain 69 per cent. Alison Redford won 51 per cent of the vote on the second round preferential ballot employed to select the leader, even less than the average.
And finally, women party leaders experience significantly shorter tenures than their male counterparts. Among major parties, women’s average is 2.4 years; for men, the equivalent figure is 5.3 years. It is rare, but not unheard of, for a male party leader who has won an election not to get a chance to defend his position in the next election. On the other hard, this is the norm for women party leaders. Again, Alison Redford fits the pattern; not only was her tenure just under the average, but she also wasn’t given the opportunity to contest a second election. Pauline Marois, on the other hand, has bucked the trend: she is the first elected woman provincial premier to survive long enough in her position to seek re-election. Yes, that’s not a misprint; she is the first and only one.
While it was true that in early 2013 women premiers governed five provinces, one territory and more than 80 per cent of Canadians, this masked the insecurity of their leadership. Fewer than 18 months later, Kathy Dunderdale and Alison Redford have resigned, partial victims of revolts in their own caucus, and Pauline Marois is in a tight battle for re-election in Quebec. The traditional struggles of women as party leader continue. It’s déjà vu all over again.
Brenda O’Neill is head and associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Calgary; David Stewart is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary