Women in Politics: Still Searching for an Equal Voice

By Wicks, Ann; Lang-Dion, Raylene | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Women in Politics: Still Searching for an Equal Voice


Wicks, Ann, Lang-Dion, Raylene, Canadian Parliamentary Review


In the United States Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign is cause for hope and reflection on the status of women's leadership in world politics. The prospect of a woman occupying the oval office represents an exciting turning point in history that is in need of further attention, particularly as it affects current Canadian political discourse. This article looks at recent developments in some other countries and considers the prospects for more women in Canada's Parliament following the next election.

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Women have rarely held positions of political leadership. In 2006, only 11 or 5.7 percent of the world s 191 nations were lead by women. (1) Similar patterns of inequity can be observed in the world's national parliaments. Only three nations come close to boasting gender balance; Rwanda ranks first in the world with 48.8 percent female legislators, Sweden has 47.3 percent women parliamentarians, and Finland ranks third with 42 percent women elected.

While Hillary Clinton's campaign is exciting for many women, it also serves as a reminder of the challenges women encounter when seeking elected office. Despite the small gains women may have made in politics over the past two decades, political leadership remains defined on masculine terms. Political Scientists Linda Trimble and Jane Arscott note there is a "persistent observation that women leaders just do not fit," and women politicians are repeatedly evaluated by their "looks, clothing, relationships, and the tone of their voices--anything but their political skills and acumen." (2)

Hillary Clinton is no exception. Recently, a Fox news commentator proclaimed Hillary Clinton was losing the male vote because of her nagging tone of voice stating, "When Barack Obama speaks, men hear, 'Take off for the future'. And when Hillary Clinton speaks, men hear, 'Take out the garbage'." In Canada, a Globe and Mail article criticized Clinton's "dumpy pantsuit" advising the presidential candidate that she her "bee-hind looks like a tree-ruck in those boxy, double-breasted nightmare pantsuits." (3)

Female politicians in Canada are not exempt from similar treatment. While at a conference, a female cabinet minister from Ontario was introduced by a male cabinet colleague with the statement, "She's got better legs, what can I say?" (4) The Ottawa Citizen recently reported that a female Member of Parliament "looked stunning in a black gown with a plunging neckline," (5) while failing to mention the attire or appearance of other politicians in attendance.

Media reports occasionally discuss the appearances of male politicians, yet the greater frequency of this type of coverage on female politicians has been well documented. Joanna Everitt, who studies media and gender in Canada, notes male leaders have "fewer sex-typed images applied to them." (6) Given politics is still a male dominated field; it is not surprising that newsrooms covering politics are generally, male dominated as well. Everitt says political reporting generally, "employs a masculine narrative that reinforces conceptions of politics as a male preserve and treats male as normative ... reinforcing the image that politics is something that men do."

The sentiment that politics is something "men do" still exists. A study conducted by Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox, uncovered a significant gender gap in how women perceive themselves as potential candidates for office. Even when men and women possessed similar qualifications, women were more than twice as likely as men to believe they were not qualified to run for office. (7) Christy Clark, British Columbia's former Deputy Premier observed this gender gap first hand. Ms. Clark who was responsible for candidate recruitment said, "Ask a woman to run for office and she'll say, 'Why are you asking me?' Ask a man, and he'll say, 'I can't believe it took you so long to ask." (8)

Lawless and Fox suggest political actors are less likely to see women as political leaders. …

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