It is striking to sit in the House of Commons during Question Period and watch how the big issues of the day are divvied up along gender lines.
Consider two of the significant stories of this fall - the H1N1 crisis and the allegations of torture of Afghan detainees. When it came to dealing with H1N1, women MPs asked the questions and the female Health Minister answered. This changed dramatically, however, when the story moved on to guns, war and torture. That's when the guys took over. For the most part, the women sat quietly in their seats.
As a leading expert on women in politics, the University of Toronto's Sylvia Bashevkin says this is not uncommon - women traditionally deal with the butter issues (social spending, health and the arts) and men with the gun issues.
"What cabinet positions women historically were offered were portfolios that were seen as a logical extensional of a traditional maternal role: health, education, welfare, culture," Ms. Bashevkin said.
There is a gender bias, too, when the issue is the economy. The Finance Minister is male (and always has been in the federal government) and so are his opposition critics.
When Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff is away from the House, he calls on his buddies Ralph Goodale and Bob Rae to stand in for him. And when the Prime Minister is away, Transport Minister John Baird or Industry Minister Tony Clement take over.
The women play no real starring roles.
Should we care? Does it matter? Is it a problem?
Anita Neville, a Winnipeg MP and chair of the Liberal women's caucus, doesn't entirely buy in to the women-are-butter-men-are-guns theory.
"I think there tends to be some stereotyping of it, but I don't think it's universal," Ms. Neville said.
She said that she has asked a question about torture in Afghanistan; she sits on the Commons Defence committee and has been to the special parliamentary committee examining the torture issue. (It is overwhelmingly male, and men appear on the political panels on television to debate the issue.)
Part of the problem, Ms. Neville said, is that the House of Commons has simply not enough women to go around.
Women hold 69 women of 308 Commons seats, about 22 per cent. Women's groups, such as Equal Voice Canada, want to see the numbers rise to 30-per-cent representation. To get there, though, will take leadership.
Despite their numbers, Ms. Neville remains positive about the impact of women in the House. She said female MPs can play a big role behind the scenes. For example, she said that the Liberal women's caucus pushed former prime minister Jean Chrétien to resist sending Canadian troops into Iraq.
But is behind-the-scenes good enough? Ms. Bashevkin clearly doesn't think so.
She said that it's important for young people of both genders to see women operating in all aspects of public policy. It is equally important to see male politicians in non-traditional roles.
"It makes public policy seem like it's about all of us and not just some narrow spectrum either of only women who care about social policy or men who are equipped to know about whether it's the economy or foreign affairs or defence," she said.
One of the most powerful defences of the importance of a national child-care program came from former Liberal cabinet minister Ken Dryden, Ms. Bashevkin said, adding that he made a big impression on her students.
"I think social policy, when voiced by a man, and defence or economic or foreign policy, when voiced by a woman, because it's sort of breaking with stereotype, can often be more compelling, more resonant and more remembered," she said.
Just look at Mike Savage. The big, burly Liberal MP from Nova Scotia plays against type as the opposition critic for human resources, which is traditionally considered a female portfolio.
Mr. Savage asks pointed questions and demands answers on homelessness and employment insurance reform. Who answers? The female minister, of course, Diane Finley.
(Photo: Liberal MP speaks in the House of Commons on Feb. 25, 2009. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)