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Susan Franceschet is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary.

Alberta’s next provincial election could see two women competing to lead the province. If the NDP wins, Rachel Notley becomes the first woman in Canadian history to win a second term as premier. If any of four female candidates wins the current United Conservative Party leadership race, Alberta would make history by having its third woman premier.

The long-term consequences of having so many women in the UCP competition could transform how women and girls think about political leadership.

The women in the race are getting a lot of media attention. The current frontrunner, mainly due to name recognition, is Danielle Smith, the former Wildrose leader who crossed the floor to join the Progressive Conservatives in 2014. She’s emerging as a favourite among a segment of conservatives who oppose COVID-19 restrictions and believe Alberta should aggressively assert independence from the federal government.

Although she decided not to enter the race, Michelle Rempel Garner attracted a great deal of media coverage and some predictions that she could emerge as a frontrunner.

The other women in the race aren’t yet garnering as much attention, but they are serious candidates – all three are former ministers in Jason Kenney’s government. Leela Aheer was minister of culture, multiculturalism and the status of women before being removed last summer for her criticisms of Mr. Kenney. Rajan Sawhney and Rebecca Schulz both resigned from cabinet when entering the leadership race. Ms. Sawhney was minister of transportation and Ms. Schulz was minister of children’s services.

The election could also be historic on another front. In addition to bringing different ideas to the table, Ms. Aheer and Ms. Sawhney come from Alberta’s South Asian community. If either of them wins the leadership, they’ll join Calgary’s mayor, Jyoti Gondek, in challenging a lengthy history of white male leadership.

Emerging research offers powerful evidence of how important it is to challenge the deeply entrenched association of political leadership with men.

A team of U.S. political scientists studied how children perceive politics and found that when both boys and girls think of political leadership, they see it as masculine. When children from Grades 1 through 6 were asked to draw a political leader, most drew a man. Ideas about gender roles and what sorts of things boys and girls are good at – sports for boys and sharing and caring for girls – emerge early and are reinforced by what children see around them.

Exposure to the political world, whether through watching the news with their parents, learning about politics in school or taking field trips to provincial legislatures, reinforces the association between men and political leadership.

Girls don’t start out believing that politics isn’t for women, they learn it.

A few years ago, I toured Saskatchewan’s legislature. Not far from me was a group of elementary schoolchildren. The very first thing the children encountered was a room filled with images of former provincial leaders – all men. Looking at the young girls on the tour, I realized that if this was their introduction to politics, they were learning that leaders do not look like them.

The good news is that women’s heightened visibility among UCP leadership hopefuls sets the stage for a transformation in how girls and women see political leadership. That’s because the many women in the race will generate a “role model effect,” activating women’s political interest. Researchers have documented this in several studies from around the world.

Two U.S. scholars who focused specifically on teenage girls found that the record number of women running for U.S. Congress in 2018 improved how young women felt about democracy in their country compared with when the same girls were surveyed in 2016. Between now and Oct. 6 – when the new UCP leader is selected – teenage girls in Alberta, including racialized girls, are going to see people who look like them on the political stage competing to lead their province’s governing party.

Women are rising to the challenge of leadership, showing the next generation of potential leaders that politics has space for those who look different from past leaders. Future schoolchildren might stop drawing pictures of men when asked to draw a politician.

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