POLITICS

Why Are There Still So Few Women Leaders in Politics?

Women are more likely to hold interim leadership roles in federal politics, but clinching the top role remains elusive

BY ANGELA MISRI

ILLUSTRATION BY PAIGE STAMPATORI

Published 03:14pm, June 9, 2022


Interim leaders hold a strange position in party politics. They’ve advanced to one of the highest offices in the country, but at a cost: these leaders are generally not allowed to run in the following leadership race due to the unfair advantage they would have. Few end up making it to the real top spot in the party at a later date. And, as history has shown, interim leader is as high as most women politicians make it. The brass ring remains frustratingly out of reach.
After Erin O’Toole was ousted as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, on February 2, Candice Bergen was quickly elected interim leader, picking up the reins of a party that seems to be having trouble deciding what it is, what it represents, and how it will take back power from the Liberals. The long-time Manitoba MP for Portage–Lisgar and former deputy leader joined an exclusive list: highly qualified women considered good enough by their parties to put things back together after a crisis but whose names often disappear when a permanent leader is discussed.

In a Twitter thread from the day Bergen was elected, Kathleen Monk, president and owner of Monk + Associates and former director of communications for Jack Layton, pointed out the large number of women who have been elected interim leaders across federal parties, from the NDP’s Nycole Turmel to the Conservatives’ Rona Ambrose, comparing it to the paltry number who’ve been elected as permanent leaders.

“We all have these theories,” Monk says. “It’s like, oh, what—Mom’s going to heal all the wounds and bring everybody together? And then that also means that she can’t actually get the big job and she’ll be relegated to history.”



As Monk points out, women party leaders have shown up, albeit rarely, in most of Canada’s federal parties. The Conservatives, through their many name changes, have had twenty-two different leaders according to the Library of Parliament’s Political Parties and Leaders database—of which one, Kim Campbell, was a woman—and seven interim leaders, three of whom were women. The NDP has had eight leaders, two of whom were women, and one interim leader, Turmel. The Liberals, for all their talk of political gender parity, have had thirteen leaders and four interim leaders over nearly 150 years, and none of them were women.
“Only Candice Bergen can tell us why she took that position,” says Erin Tolley, Canada Research Chair in gender, race, and inclusive politics at Carleton University. (Bergen denied an interview request for this story.) “But it didn’t surprise me—it fits with what we know about women’s roles in politics, that [they] often come in to take leadership roles in situations where the role is possibly less desirable.” Tolley says this phenomenon is present in politics around the world and in many democratic parties regardless of ideology. “That’s not to say that the women selected for those positions are not skilled and capable and highly qualified actors, it’s just that, when they do have the opportunity to take on those leadership responsibilities, it tends to be in less-than-ideal circumstances.”
In recent years, as parties across the political spectrum openly discuss the importance of diversity and gender representation, it can feel like women interim leaders have been used as a way of paying lip service to these ideals without making actual changes. More than 100 years after women won the right to run for office, why are there still so few women party leaders?


In the 2021 federal election, about 43 percent of candidates across the five main parties identified as women or gender diverse according to Equal Voice, an organization that advocates for better political representation. Before the vote, we had 100 women MPs, and afterward, that number rose to 103. The political landscape in Canada is changing, but the change has been slow. Women now fill slightly less than one-third of the seats in Parliament. A woman has had the position of prime minister only once, and it lasted less than five months.
This gap exists despite the fact that most Canadians say they welcome women politicians. In a 2016 Angus Reid poll, 84 percent of respondents said that women and men make equally good leaders and 40 percent blamed the parties for the lack of women representatives, agreeing that “political parties don’t do enough to encourage women candidates.” There seems to be something to this second point: according to research from Equal Voice, men are almost twice as likely as women to be approached to run by political parties.
“I think the phenotype of the successful Canadian politician has been a male who hasn’t tended to want to share power,” says Jane Philpott, a former Liberal MP and minister of health, now dean of Queen’s University’s faculty of health sciences. “It goes to [show] the institutional mechanisms that the major political parties have built, and it takes an enormous amount of collective energy to overcome those power structures.”


A Brief History of Representation in Canadian Federal Politics

1867

The first federal government is formed by John A. MacDonald. Canadian men are allowed to vote and run for federal office.

1871

The first Métis MPs are elected: Pierre Delorme and Angus McKay.

1918

Some women win the federal right to vote. First Nations women are allowed to vote if they give up their status and treaty rights.

1921

Agnes Macphail becomes the first woman elected to Parliament.

1940

Women in Quebec are given the provincial right to vote and stand for office.

1948

All Asian Canadians receive the federal right to vote.

1957

Douglas Jung becomes the first Chinese Canadian elected to Parliament.

Ellen Fairclough becomes the first woman cabinet member.

1960

First Nations people of all genders are given the federal right to vote without having to give up their status and treaty rights.

1968

Lincoln Alexander becomes the first Black person elected to federal office.

1969

All First Nations people are given the provincial right to vote in Quebec.

1988

Ethel Blondin-Andrew becomes the first Indigenous woman MP.

1993

Jean Augustine becomes the first Black woman MP.

Kim Campbell becomes the first woman prime minister of Canada.

2004

Bill Siksay becomes first openly gay man to win federal office.

2017

Jagmeet Singh becomes the first person of colour to win party leadership.


“Well, they know they can do it and they know they’ll do it better than most men. So I think what we really need now is for underrepresented groups, as you say, absolutely women but for sure people of colour and all other forms of underrepresentation, putting their names forward and challenging the power structures that are there.”

Jane Philpott

jane philpott

Former minister of health

Image courtesy of Dave Kalmbach/Wikimedia Commons


There are many theories for why women have struggled to secure leadership roles. Melanee Thomas, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, rejects the commonly argued excuses—that women have lower profiles, that they lack certain qualifications. “I immediately thought of gendered political opportunities where Lisa Raitt finished in the contest that selected Andrew Scheer,” she says of the 2017 Conservative leadership race. As that party election was unfolding, Thomas looked at the list of candidates and thought Raitt should be a clear front-runner: she’d been in office since 2008, she had experience in three cabinet roles, and she could appeal to voters outside of the party’s base. But, over seven rounds of ballots, Raitt never got more than 4 percent of the vote.
Thomas says politicians like Raitt and Rona Ambrose (who was interim Conservative leader after Stephen Harper stepped down) are just as qualified, if not more so, compared with the men who ultimately won the party's leadership titles. “Yet they're not being rewarded in the same kind of way. And this is consistent with leadership positions,” Thomas says. “So I'm not surprised that somebody like Bergen put her name up to be interim leader knowing the gendered political opportunity structure.”
According to Raitt, running for leader of the Conservative Party requires years of preparation, including creating a constituency across the country that you can draw from when the party caucus comes together to vote. It’s a strategy, she says, she learned from Jason Kenney. The past two Conservative leaders, Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole, both had links to western MPs and social conservatives, she says, and that’s part of why they won. “They had natural constituencies that would give them their base of power. I don’t know of any women who have a natural constituency that they’ve built up.”
A constituency is important, and someone like Elizabeth May, former leader of the Green Party, would know. But, as the longest-serving woman party leader in Canadian federal politics, May is quick to point out that we still live in a patriarchy with high degrees of implicit sexism, and this affects how people vote. “When Justin Trudeau decided to have a gender-balanced cabinet, the reaction from some men in the media was, ‘Well, does this mean that we're going to have less-qualified people in cabinet?’ They never questioned the credentials of some spectacularly unqualified cabinet ministers over the years. Nobody from the media ever said, ‘Oh dear, if we're going to have a male cabinet, surely we’re going to miss out on competent people because we’ve excluded women!’”
May appears to be a clear example of how women can win leadership races just as capably as men can. But some experts say that, though women have made great strides in smaller parties, they have faced much more of a challenge when it comes to securing roles in the main parties that actually share power. “We need to be very careful about equating the leadership of the Green Party with the leadership of the Liberals or Conservatives,” says Tolley. “For a Green Party activist, this is a desirable position, but for the average political operative, this is not where they would really see themselves playing a powerful political role. There are degrees of prestige, power, and influence in politics, and being the leader of the Green Party is nowhere close to being the most prestigious, powerful, or influential position in Canadian politics.”
In other words, if you’re not in a position to form the government, that’s a different kind of fight. And this is perhaps part of the reason why we’ve seen more women leaders run for, and win, the role of interim leader in the major parties. “You have to run in your caucus, but it’s not a drag-’em-out tough election,” says Monk. “You get all the trappings of power, but you didn’t actually have to run that hard gauntlet [of a leadership race or federal election], which is unpleasant for many people, not just women.”


“Politics is still very much a man’s world. And interim leadership is something—or, you know, the glass cliff problem of saying to a woman, ‘Okay, you could be leader now because we know we’re super unpopular, and that’ll be the end of you.’ So that was sort of the problem for Kim Campbell and Kathleen Wynne, you know: at the very last of a party’s reign, pass it over to a woman, and that’ll be the end of it.”

Elizabeth May

elizabeth may

Former Green Party leader

Image courtesy of Marcus Redivo/Wikimedia Commons


But Raitt says the idea that women are somehow settling for interim leadership roles is just not true. “I mean, given the opportunity, I’ll take it. I’m going to take the opportunity and I’m going to disprove. My point of view is, I don’t care what your motivation is. Just give me the job and I’m going to prove to you that I can do it.”
Are there any downsides to taking on the interim role? According to Monk, it’s a messy, thankless job that no one will remember you for. “They choose women as interim—Why? Because they want to wade through all the shit and pull everybody back together and get the house in order before the guy who has all the power gets to come in and take over.”
Raitt disagrees with this argument, seeing no downside to a politician like Bergen stepping up in an interim capacity. “What it does is it allows you to showcase your skills and proves leadership ability, which are important both in the party and in Parliament but as well in real life, when you do end up deciding to leave or if your constituents fire you.”
“Women are not dumb,” she says. “They are strategic actors. They’re reading the context. I find this to be a much more satisfying explanation.”


The fact is, many of our politicians come from an incredibly narrow segment of the population. Politicians are still mostly men, still mostly white, and still mostly upper class. The lack of women leaders will continue as long as this trend continues: when there is a smaller pool to draw from, gaining the top job is all the more difficult.
“When I think about the one-income, single-mom households who would have to give up their income for two months in order to run for office, it becomes very clear why women don't run,” says Arezoo Najibzadeh, founder and managing director of Platform, an organization that aims to help Black, Indigenous, and other racialized women and gender-diverse people achieve leadership roles. This is why it is such an anomaly to see political candidates who are Black or Indigenous women from nonprofessional backgrounds, Najibzadeh says. “Our political system is so inaccessible to people who don’t come from a certain cultural background, a certain economic background.”
And, when candidates from diverse backgrounds do run—and even climb to high positions—their status is not secure. “We’ve seen these ‘troublemakers’—the Black, the Indigenous [politicians who] go against the flow,” Najibzadeh says. Think Jody Wilson-Raybould, who left the Liberals after a conflict with Justin Trudeau, and Annamie Paul, who had a short tenure as leader of the Greens. “[They] become like shining stars in this constellation of cabinets, and the moment that they don’t go with the flow anymore, they’re kicked out so easily.”
May points to another potential explanation—one she says she’s been working to fix for years. “The countries in the world that have the most women in office are all proportional representation. Countries that have the most women prime ministers, all proportional-representation countries,” she says. A proportional-representation election system is one in which the number of legislative seats a party wins directly reflects the number of votes it received. In Canada’s system, by contrast, a seat goes to whomever gets the most votes in a particular riding, even if it’s by a slim margin, and votes received by other candidates in that riding aren’t reflected in the legislature.


“I mean, when I ran for leader, I had women and men say to me, ‘Well, we tried a woman leader, and it didn’t work out.’ And I said, you know, at that rate, the Liberals, who I think had been through four leaders before they got to Trudeau, they never would have had another male leader.”

Peggy Nash

peggy nash

Former NDP MP

Image courtesy of Dean Goodwin/Flickr


Running for a leadership position is a life-changing commitment that requires total focus for a job that may never come. And the level of harassment that politicians open themselves up to can be hard to bear. Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has been harassed for seemingly as long as he has been in politics, most recently at a campaign stop in Peterborough–Kawartha. And he is not alone. According to the Toronto Star, in a 2018 Canadian Press survey of women MPs, nearly 58 percent of respondents said they had personally experienced sexual misconduct while in office.
With all these barriers in mind, is it so surprising that, as the Conservative leadership race gets underway, it resembles almost every other leadership race in our country’s history?
On February 5, Pierre Poilievre tweeted out his first campaign message as he announced his bid to become permanent leader of the Conservatives. The MP for Carleton, in Ottawa, immediately became a front-runner. As of May, five others have announced their decision to run, including Jean Charest and Patrick Brown. Only one woman has entered the race: Leslyn Lewis, an Ontario MP who came third the last time around. Lewis is not as well known by the public. She was not given a critic portfolio by Erin O’Toole, and in order to win, she will have to spend her time between now and the September 10 election making sure Canadians know who she is. Previous interim leaders like Rona Ambrose, who are eligible to run and already have the public profile, are notably staying out of the fray.
“The natural thought will be that we as women believe that we can’t do the ‘real’ job. And that's not the case,” says Raitt. “It’s not about whether or not we can do the job. We all believe we can do a better job than the guys can. The problem is, Can we get the job? That's it. And sometimes getting the interim job and putting things right, fixing the messes that came before, is a lot more valuable than getting the big job and running an election and losing.”
Regardless of who ultimately wins the party leadership, the question no one can really answer is: Does having a woman leader really matter? Will gender parity actually make government better for Canadians?
Supriya Dwivedi, senior counsel at the communications firm Enterprise and former campaign adviser for Toronto mayoral candidate David Soknacki, says she doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that we now have a gender-diverse cabinet in power and our government is finally making advances in child care. But, she cautions, there are effective and ineffective leaders from all genders and all backgrounds. “I think women can be terrible people and terrible leaders just as men can be terrible leaders and people. But I think, when you have only a third of parliamentarians as women, there are just natural blind spots that go unchecked.”


“I think where some of the Conservatives and parliamentarians generally is—they’ve fallen into the trap of ‘Anything that’s a women’s issue is a special-interest issue or a leftist issue.’ But we’re 50 percent of the population. Conservative women care about pay equity just as much as, you know, Liberal or NDP women are concerned with pay equity.”

Supriya Dwivedi

supriya dwivedi

Former campaign adviser for Toronto mayoral candidate David Soknacki

Image courtesy of Graham Isador


Peggy Nash, a former NDP MP and author of Women Winning Office: An Activist’s Guide to Getting Elected, agrees. “I would also argue that just rotating the chairs and putting different faces is not necessarily the solution. These structures are, in some ways, very fossilized structures and can be very chafing for some women when they get elected. So I think it’s not just a question of electing more women or more diverse parliamentarians. It is about electing those who really understand the need for transformation and are committed not just to themselves getting elected but also to transforming our structures to leave doors more open for others.”
Najibzadeh goes ever further in cautioning against gender parity as a goal in and of itself. “I think our present obsession with representation politics will be our demise,” she says. “We want these women to represent these ideals that we have for a better future without necessarily understanding the political condition that we’re putting them in. Representation is a means to an end. Representation is not the end.”◼︎
Correction June 9, 2022: An earlier version of this article stated that, prior to the 2021 federal election, there were ninety-nine women MPs. In fact, there were 100 women MPs. The Walrus regrets the error.


A Brief History of Representation in Canadian Federal Politics

1867

The first federal government is formed by John A. MacDonald. Canadian men are allowed to vote and run for federal office.

1871

The first Métis MPs are elected: Pierre Delorme and Angus McKay.

1918

Some women win the federal right to vote. First Nations women are allowed to vote if they give up their status and treaty rights.

1921

Agnes Macphail becomes the first woman elected to parliament.

1940

Women in Quebec are given the provincial right to vote and stand for office.

1948

All Asian Canadians receive the federal right to vote.

1957

Douglas Jung becomes the first Chinese Canadian elected to Parliament.

Ellen Fairclough becomes the first woman cabinet member.

1960

First Nations people of all genders are given the federal right to vote without having to give up their status and treaty rights.

1968

Lincoln Alexander becomes the first Black person elected to federal office.

1969

All First Nations people are given the provincial right to vote in Quebec.

1988

Ethel Blondin-Andrew becomes the first Indigenous woman MP.

1993

Jean Augustine becomes the first Black woman MP.

Kim Campbell becomes the first woman prime minister of Canada.

2004

Bill Siksay becomes first openly gay man to win federal office.

2017

Jagmeet Singh becomes the first person of colour to win party leadership.

Angela Misri
Angela Misri is an assistant professor at Toronto Metropolitan University's school of journalism and the former digital director of The Walrus. She is also the author of the Portia Adams Adventures and Pickles vs. the Zombies series. She writes about digital journalism, technology, politics, and pop culture for many media outlets.
Paige Stampatori
Paige Stampatori (paigestampatori.com) is a conceptual illustrator based in the Waterloo region.

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