In all likelihood, early in 2013, Canada will have six women premiers. And later in the year, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper adjusts his cabinet, more women than men probably will vault from the back benches to the front.
For now, five women occupy premiers’ chairs, but when the Liberal Party of Ontario selects a replacement for Dalton McGuinty, odds are the winner will be either Kathleen Wynne or Sandra Pupatello. If so, then half the premiers would be women: the new Ontario premier, Newfoundland’s Kathy Dunderdale, Quebec’s Pauline Marois, Nunavut's Eva Aariak, Alberta’s Alison Redford, British Columbia’s Christy Clark (who might lose the May election).
Three of the nine Supreme Court of Canada judges are women, down from four a while ago. It would be surprising, however, if one of the replacements for two male judges from Quebec coming up for retirement were not a woman, restoring to four the number of female judges.
The trend seems clear: Despite enduring obstacles, women are moving up the political and judicial ladders, obviously not as rapidly as some women desire but faster than many had dared hope not too many years ago.
Do women do things differently in politics than men? If they’re in the top jobs, does government change?
Those are good questions to which it’s hard to find a fixed answer. If you look at the Conservative female MPs who are likely to be on the list for cabinet promotion, they don’t seem ideologically much different from the men now in cabinet. The new Conservative MP from Calgary, Joan Crockatt, would be comfortable with the far-right ravers at Sun TV.
The Harper government, according to polls, has a political deficit among women voters. A lot of women intuitively (and rationally, too) understand the counterproductive elements of the government’s criminal justice policies. The glorification of all things military strikes a less resonant chord with women than men. Polls consistently show women more interested in social policies than men, but this government doesn’t accord social policy the highest of priorities.
Perhaps the elevation to more prominence of Conservative women MPs will help the government’s image a bit, because the heavyweight cabinet portfolios are disproportionately occupied by men. Then again, people of each gender vote on a range of factors, gender being only one of them and often not a determining one. Indeed, the more women move up the ladder, the less the imperative for some voters to choose on a gender basis.
Alberta politics features two women leaders: Ms. Redford, and Danielle Smith of the Wildrose Party. Gender doesn’t tell you much about why one is sort of centrist, whereas the other is solidly on the ideological right.
Newfoundland’s Ms. Dunderdale certainly has a different style than Danny Williams, the premier she replaced, but then almost any male would have had a different style, too. Let’s just say Mr. Williams had a personality that was distinctive.
Listening to Ms. Marois in the televised Quebec leaders debates revealed a person just as adept at the knife and thrust of politics as her male opponents. (Those debates were about as brutal as anything in politics these days.) And, by the way, women represented about half the Liberal cabinet that was replaced by Ms. Marois’s Parti Québécois cabinet.
If you think back not too many years, there were no women premiers. In the 1980s, federal cabinets had only a sprinkling of women (such as Monique Bégin, Flora MacDonald and Barbara McDougall).
Women in politics still complain that it’s sometimes harder for them to find the money necessary to run, and the juggling of family and politics deters some from entering politics altogether. And there are dinosaur male politicians who make sexist comments behind women’s backs. Hills remain to be climbed.
Still, for those who sought greater participation for women in politics, any fair-minded judgment would have to record impressive progress. If you compare the number of women in top spots in politics with those in big business, politics wins, hands down.
Editor's note: There are five women premiers in Canada. The number was misstated in an earlier version of this column.