Martha Hall Findlay is president and CEO of the Canada West Foundation and a former Liberal MP.
There is a lot of talk these days about “women in politics,” but that, in and of itself, creates a challenge for women in politics.
Both former ministers Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott have made significant and potentially seriously career-limiting moves based, they have said, on their principles. Doing so suggests a level of integrity that, as amply demonstrated by the shock value of their recent resignations from cabinet, is all too rare in politics. Yet much of the discussion has included their gender – referred to it, highlighted it or suggested that their actions were tied to, even prompted by, the fact that they happen to be women. To some extent, this can be blamed on the Prime Minister’s own emphasis when putting them in cabinet on, in fact, their gender.
I prefer to believe that they did not resign because they are women; rather, because they are people with principles, which in turn guided their actions.
Here’s a stress test of how to perceive the two ministers’ decisions: If it had been two men, can you imagine people saying, “Isn’t it impressive that these two guys are risking their political careers by standing on principle – because that’s not what men do?"
Suggesting, as some are now doing, that more principled behaviour is “normal” for women, which implies that it is to be expected of women more than of men, takes away some of the power of their actions. Doing so also, perversely, sets higher, purely gender-based expectations for other women. And I believe that this puts an added unfair burden on women.
My mother – a wise woman who defied a few expectations in her own way – often reminded us that, despite the human temptation to make generalizations, we must treat every person as an individual. Forgetting to do so is how even the best intentions to promote equality and equal opportunity can miss the mark.
Over the course of my years speaking about “women in politics” to groups working to increase female participation in politics – something I wholeheartedly support – I’ve found myself suggesting that it would accomplish more if these groups asked women already in politics to speak, not about the act of being “women in politics,” but about the actual policy and political challenges to which we brought knowledge and experience, such as finance, trade, foreign affairs. Doing so would do more to build the confidence for more women to run, and the respect – of both women and men – needed to support them when they did.
Success or failure, competence or incompetence, experience or inexperience, integrity or lack thereof – particularly in today’s political environment – are far too often discussed through the lens of gender. But representing the actions of Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott as gender-based would set a flawed standard for all women to “live up to.”
Let’s talk about competence instead – at the same time, we should talk about competence among the men.
If anyone expects a whole raft of women to do this kind of thing because they are somehow "better,” are more willing to sacrifice power and ambition for principles, get into politics for a “higher purpose” or have more integrity than men – they will be disappointed.
From my own experience in business, law and politics, I have encountered plenty of men and women who aren’t competent enough for their assigned tasks, who lead badly, who bully, who lack principle, who will put down colleagues in order to get ahead, who allow themselves to be blown in whatever direction the winds of opportunity happen to be blowing at any particular time. I have seen all of this, I have to say, especially in politics.
But I have also known the opposite. There are plenty of men and women who get into politics to make change, to improve society, who will stand on principle. We just need a lot more of them – regardless of gender.
Our society will only benefit from having more female representation in all fields, not because women are “better” than men, are more “consensus-driven,” are “nicer,” are more willing to stand on principle, or can otherwise claim some higher moral ground. We will all benefit because the different experiences and different perspectives they bring permit better, broader analysis and decision-making. I am thrilled to see so many women who have run for, and gained, public office; I am also thrilled to see that their examples will encourage more women to do so.
However, important efforts toward such equality and equal opportunity are not helped – and may be hampered – when women are treated differently, or people expect different behaviour from them, worse or better, simply because they are women.