Skip to main content

Move over, fellas. There's a bunch of new girls in town, and they're in charge. If things keep going this way, the highly exclusive club for Canadian premiers will have to start considering affirmative action for men.

Nobody would dream of calling Kathleen Wynne, Alison Redford, Pauline Marois, Christy Clark, Kathy Dunderdale and Eva Aariak anybody's babies. These six provincial and territorial leaders represent a huge majority of the Canadian population. (A big caution: Both Ms. Clark and Ms. Wynne have yet to be tested by the voters. Ms. Clark looks doomed and Ms. Wynne may not last long either, but you shouldn't count her out.)

Is it an accident or a trend? Probably both. But the bench is deep. Two tough, smart women dominated Ontario's Liberal leadership race. (The other was Sandra Pupatello.) The men in the race ate their dust.

"It's time to celebrate," says Barbara McDougall, who was a cabinet minister in the Mulroney government (a distinction she shared with Kim Campbell and Pat Carney). She thinks that, on the whole, the calibre of provincial leadership is trending up. Let's hope she's right, because this generation will have the monumental task of satisfying people's expectations for services while wrestling budgets under control. They'll have to act compassionate but stern, and will somehow have to persuade the public – along with teachers, nurses and civil servants – that pain is good for them. "It will be interesting to see if party differences matter as much as before," Ms. McDougall says.

Do women do politics differently? That depends. If you're the only woman in the room (Margaret Thatcher, Sheila Copps), you've got to out-macho the men if you want to get ahead. Adding more women to a group tends to cut down on the towel-snapping and elevate the tone. Neither Ms. Redford nor Ms. Wynne is interested in old-style combat politics. They say they want to build bridges, not burn them. Both will have the public cheering loudly if they succeed.

"Women really are less adversarial and combative," says Barbara Moses, a career-management expert and a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail. She points out several other factors that make the political experience different for women and for men. Men, in general, are highly competitive and are driven into politics by ego and power needs. Women – even highly competitive ones – are extremely ambivalent about those things. The first half of women's lives tends to be about people-pleasing – parents, bosses, partners, kids. It's only in the second half that women get less interested in pleasing others and more interested in self-expression and making a broader contribution to society. That's why Bill Clinton was governor at 32 and Hillary didn't hit her stride until her 60s.

Other factors discourage women from entering politics. Women tend to be more thin-skinned than men, Dr. Moses told me – and people in public life today need the hide of a rhinoceros. Women are more reluctant to thrust themselves into the public eye and they take it harder when people don't like them. Obviously women can be as tough as men – or tougher. But first they have to get comfortable with not always being liked or nice.

Personally, I think women's time in politics has come. There are, for starters, a flood of brilliant and accomplished women who've reached the second half of their lives. Gender is no longer an issue with voters, either. In fact, research shows that voters have high trust in women to manage the issues that most affect their lives – health, education and the like. Voters are sick of combat and hungry for consensus and collaboration. And now, with so many role models in high office, more girls will grow up believing that being premier one day is just a natural thing to do.

Interact with The Globe