Laurin Liu was the NDP member of Parliament for Rivière-des-Mille-Îles (2011-2015). She was the youngest female MP in Canadian history
When the federal government reneged on its campaign promise to enact electoral reform last week, it was Minister of Democratic Reform Karina Gould who made the announcement at a press conference, and not the Prime Minister himself. In doing so, Ms. Gould took the fall for a massively unpopular decision, conveyed to her through a mandate letter from the Prime Minister's Office. This, only weeks after she was named to her new role, inheriting a file that was already in the final stages of crisis.
As they watched Ms. Gould announce the unwelcome news to the press, many working women saw a scenario that they were already all too familiar with: a female leader getting pushed off the glass cliff, having been hired or promoted only to be set up to fail. Management columnists have written about the tendency for women to be preferred over men for precarious jobs when an organization is in crisis. Because the conditions for success are absent, women in these roles are blamed when failure occurs, thereby cementing bias that assumes women aren't competent leaders in the first place.
In politics, the glass cliff is also found where women are recruited as candidates to run in ridings where their party has very little chance of winning. Environment Minister Catherine McKenna referred to this in an interview with journalist Althia Raj discussing her opposition to an NDP MP's bill that would penalize parties who run a male-dominated slate. The Minister is quoted as saying, "You don't want to be in a situation where you get 50 per cent [female] candidates and you do put them in seats where they are less likely to win." That would be unfortunate indeed, but this would be an argument for quotas to be accompanied by other gender-equity measures, rather than a persuasive reason to reject quotas altogether.
When I was a part of the NDP opposition caucus, I recall discussing exactly this question during meetings of the women's caucus. My female colleagues and I knew that any gender-equity strategy would need ongoing buy-in from the leader's office as well as consistent collaboration with staff from various departments, from organizers responsible for candidate recruitment to our fundraising team. Progress in gender equity is never a given; the risk of backsliding is all too real. Making sure that women are given conditions for success in their political workplaces requires that the conversation be ongoing and that the issue be flagged as an organizational priority. And it requires male colleagues and leaders to have an ally mentality.
We should celebrate and encourage our Prime Minister's widely broadcast and frequent self-identification as a feminist, as well as his decision to name a gender-balanced cabinet. But as a role model for men who manage and work with women, his behaviour is far from being a model of allyship.
Let's rewind back to 2014, when Mr. Trudeau, then the leader of the Liberal Party in opposition, held a press conference publicizing two incidents of alleged sexual misconduct, much to the shock and surprise of the women involved – who happened to be NDP MPs. These women only found out that the incidents had become nationally exposed from reading about the press conference in the news. On a personal level, the betrayal was all the more painful because this occurred after confidential meetings between the parties in which a woman involved explicitly told then-Liberal Party whip Judy Foote that she did not want the issue publicized.
The calculus was ruthless but clever: the Liberals couldn't risk taking a political hit if information about the incidents ever leaked to the media. By holding a press conference catapulting the incidents into the national limelight, media scrutiny became fixated on the alleged victims themselves.
Although Mr. Trudeau withheld further comment, he nevertheless allowed his front bench, under the glare of news cameras, to say that they believed the women should come forward. This further fuelled the narrative that the women, not the Liberal leader, were to take any and all blame and scrutiny. Despite an interview in which one of the women said she regretted coming forward to Mr. Trudeau, and that after the incident went public, she had developed panic attacks, Mr. Trudeau was widely praised for having done the right thing.
Women don't deserve to be used as political cover or as scapegoats, in politics or in the workplace. The conversation surrounding the place of women in Canadian politics shouldn't end with Prime Minister Trudeau's move to name a gender-balanced cabinet – in fact, in the machinations of Ottawa, it's only the beginning.