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women in politics

This commentary is part of Work in Progress, The Globe's look at the global struggle for gender parity.

Christy Clark is the Premier of the country's fastest growing province, has delivered four balanced budgets and won a majority government in a surprising come-from-behind election campaign – she believes she has earned her chops.

Yet, she can be in meetings with men, and be ignored.

"I still sit in meetings with male staffers when we have guests come in, CEOs and all the rest of it, and they talk to the male staffers and they're meeting with me," says the British Columbia Premier. She says some men are uncomfortable with women at high-level meetings, and by habit revert to talking to the guys.

"If that is happening to me, it's happening to women all over the province," she says.

Ms. Clark, 50, speaks from experience – on Sunday, she becomes the longest-serving female first minister in the country, passing former Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak, who served for five years and one day.

That being in power for five years and two days is now a political record speaks volumes about the slow progress of Canadian women in politics. Former Ontario premier Bill Davis and former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed served for 14 years. Kim Campbell was prime minister for a few months before she was defeated, while Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien chose their exits after about a decade in office.

"Apparently, you don't have to serve very long to be the longest, which really does indicate to me that we still have a long way to go," says Ms. Clark.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, who along with Alberta's Rachel Notley, completes the female premier troika, agrees more progress needs to be made; more women need to be elected.

"But, I'm happy to see more than ever before, women are not just participating, we are leading," she says.

Leading comes with a price. A radio host asked Ms. Clark what it was like being a MILF, and Virgin Group billionaire Richard Branson invited her to go kitesurfing naked on his back.

"My response to that was, with pickup lines like that, I can see why he chose the name he did for his company."

Although she is considered to be strongly partisan, and tough, Ms. Clark says many people in the province jumped to her defence because they felt it was disrespectful to her office.

The sexism has not abated, however. "It's a tone thing," she says. "I'm a cheerleader or a Barbie or a photo-op cutout cartoon that the men just shove around from event to event to get my picture taken," she says about the perception around female leaders.

But there is a different standard for male leaders, she argues, suggesting that when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or former Prime Minister Stephen Harper make announcements, no matter who they are posing with or against what background, their message is taken more seriously.

She has been asked, too, how she can be the premier and a mother. Her son, Hamish, is 14.

"The underlying part of it is I was a bad mother for wanting to be premier. That was the tone of it," she says. "That is just writ large the story that tons of women experience."

The Premier is trying to change the behaviour in her workplace. Recently, she took a phone call from her son during a caucus meeting. "I was sitting at the head of the table and I said, 'Just a minute, dear' and I walked out of the room," she says. "The way most women have to deal with that, because they are not the boss, is they have to not pick up the phone, and they worry about it."

She wants women in her workplace to know that picking up the phone is not an admission that you can't do your job.

As for attracting women to politics, Ms. Clark believes changing the negative tone of Question Period would make the biggest difference. "Dalton McGuinty [former Ontario premier] described it to me as … it almost feels like violence without the punching," she said. "I think that a lot of women are just not up for that."

As for supporting women in her province, she cited her government's Single Parent Employment Initiative, which she says is helping single mothers on welfare get an education, and hopefully a job. "The part of the story that is so interesting to me," says Ms. Clark, "is that almost all of the ministers who did this were women. … That's the impact women have."

Yet, her government is under fire now for increasing disability assistance for the first time in nearly a decade but taking most of it away by clawing back transit passes and transportation subsidies from many recipients.

Last week, Mr. Trudeau met with the premiers in Vancouver to talk about climate change. At that meeting, Ms. Clark was not ignored.

She says she and her two female colleagues, Ms.Wynne and Ms. Notley, were more assertive than the men: "We were forceful and present."