Christy Clark shocked everyone last month with her victory in the in the British Columbia election. The opposition New Democrats led by Adrian Dix were expected to win – but ended ended up with less of the popular vote than they received in 2009, when they were led by Carole James.
Pundits have attributed the surprise Liberal win to many things – negative campaigning, the Premier’s laser-like focus on the economy, the ill-timed rejection of the Kinder Morgan pipeline proposal by Mr. Dix, and even a mysterious “incumbency” factor which is supposed to give governing parities a boost for some unknown reason. But none of the pundits has pointed to the gender factor and how having a female leader may have boosted Liberal support.
This is no surprise. Being a woman in politics, particularly a party leader, is supposed to be a disadvantage with the electorate, a burden that has to be overcome. Back in the 1993 federal election, Kim Campbell flamed out as party leader and Prime Minister, leading her governing Conservatives to an historic defeat and winning only two seats in the House of Commons. The back-room boys took note. It was 17 years before any governing party at the federal or provincial level picked another woman as their leader.
But being a woman in politics today is not the problem it once was. A May, 2013, Atlantic article describes how American political operatives are busy scouting that country for female candidates, not motivated by ideals of “gender equity”, but because they think the U.S. electorate wants to vote for women. Republicans want to win more female voters, and both Republican and Democratic consultants think that voters view women as more trustworthy, more likely to find solutions to issues, and less open to corruption. According to author Molly Ball, new experimental research shows that women are viewed no differently from men when it comes to competence and ability to handle a range of issues, and that the old stereotypes and biases against women no longer affect female candidates. And even the media coverage of female candidates has vastly improved, according to recent studies.
North of the border, we have five female premiers (and a female leader in Nunavut). Four of these premiers – Ms. Clark, Redford, Marois, and Dunderdale – have won elections for their parties. Premiers Redford and Clark won against heavy expectations that they would lose. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has yet to face the electorate, although polls show that Liberal support has increased since she took the helm.
It took Canadian political elites a long time to overcome their aversion to female leaders. I am convinced that voters were ready to elect more women well before Ms. Dunderdale in Newfoundland started the recent string of female-led victories in 2011.
In an Environics poll conducted during the 2008 federal election, Canadians were asked “Thinking about the current federal election, are you more likely to vote for a party, are you less likely to vote for a party, or does it make no difference to your vote, if the candidate is a woman?” Most voters were gender neutral: 88 per cent said the gender of the candidate made no difference. But a total of 8 per cent said they were more likely to vote for a party if it ran a female candidate, while only 2 per cent said they were less likely to vote for this party. This six-point net difference suggests a tantalizing “female advantage” that might be operating in Canadian politics today.
Is sexism in politics gone? I doubt it very much. Women will still face barriers from that 2 per cent (or more) of voters who do not want them in politics, and from those in the political parties who still believe that voters are sceptical and from those in the media who still want to talk about hairstyles and wardrobes. But the smart operatives across Canada will want to find their own Christy Clarks and run them as soon as possible.
Donna Dasko, Ph.D. is co-founder and past national chair of Equal Voice, which promotes the election of more women to Canada’s parliament, legislatures, and municipal councils.