Ontario has a new premier and her ascension is nothing if not groundbreaking – the first female and openly gay premier-designate. She ran a disciplined and largely respectful campaign and that last characteristic might have been a key reason for her ultimate victory. Repeatedly through the contest she said things like, “The rancour and the viciousness of the legislature can’t continue.” Many seasoned observers have noted that Queen’s Park has increasingly taken on the hyper-partisan characteristics of the House of Commons in Ottawa. So her emphasis on decorum and respect is a welcome signal.
It was also Tweeted consistently that over 90% of Canadians are led by female provincial leaders – another positive signal. But will it last? And more importantly, can the effects of a better gender balance in our parliaments lead us to a more productive future of cooperation and compromise so seemingly out of reach in the formerly male-dominated world of politics as a blood sport? Women political leaders will hardly prove successful in such an undertaking if we as citizens don’t support such efforts.
But before we get too carried away with this transformation that has been years in the making, two sober realities remain that must be understood and counteracted.
The first is the troubling tendency for women to refuse voting for other female aspirants to leadership. According to Peggy Drexler, research psychologist and gender scholar, too many studies reveal this tendency to make it a mere anomaly. Although women are more likely than men to focus in on gender issues, they still remain hesitant to transform that interest into voting for other women. Ironically, while women are more likely to vote for someone because she is female, they are just as likely to dismiss her for the same reason. In noting that women tend to be harder on female candidates, Drexler concludes:
Women still judge other women – simply put, they continue to be judged against the standards initiated and maintained by men. And because many women therefore know quite well what it’s like to feel judged, they then turn that judgement back on one another.
This is disturbing, but my own experience in politics has taught me that it is indeed a reality. So, in order to matter, to count, to lead, SOME women become more harsh, more partisan, more mean-spirited than their male counterparts simply because they feel they have to be to get noticed or to move ahead, and are often coached by their male advisors to adopt such a posture. Kathleen Wynne explicitly demonstrated that you can win and lead by being inclusive. Powerful women leaders like Deb Matthews recognized that and gave her their support.
Now for a second sobering reality. The international development community learned years ago that for true development to be effective, the role of women must be enhanced worldwide, not merely in the West. How’s that going so far? Consider this from Amnesty International:
- Women perform 66% of the world’s work, receive only 11% of the world’s income, and own only 1% of the land.
- Women make up 66% of the world’s illiterate adults.
- Women head 83% of single-parent families. The number of families nurtured by women alone doubled from 1970 to 1995.
- Despite women totalling 55% of all college students, it does not translate into economic opportunities or political power nearly to the same degree as men.
- Two-thirds of the world’s children who receive less than four years of education are girls, and girls represent 60% of the children not in school.
- Three out of every four fatalities of various wars are women and children.
- About 75% of the refugees and internally displaced in the world are women who have lost their families and their homes.
There remains the tragic disconnect in Canada between the fate of women domestically and internationally. To promote the rights and potential of women effectively means to defend it everywhere, not merely where it is close to us. Nevertheless, support for Western governments that cut back international aid continues to curtail the opportunities for women worldwide and yet we permit such a decline to prevail.
One week ago my wife and I returned from south Sudan after leading a large team to assist with development projects we have run there for years. With their own eyes these Canadians saw how for the lack of $300 per annum a girl can’t get a high school education. They learned that for want of $120 a mother can’t provide sustainable food for her family. They were saddened to discover that women who fled slavery in order to give their children a chance for health and education are considering returning to captivity since precious few resources exist for them in the south. Ms. Wynne’s victory is important, but compared to such realities it surely must lose some of its lustre. Victory for women in Canada should mean the same for women worldwide; we’re not there yet – not even close. Or as Benjamin Franklin put it: “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”
I am tired of a kind of politics that doesn’t have enough female representation, but I am equally saddened to live in a Western world that places such emphasis on women’s representation at the same time as it ignores it worldwide. All too many struggle to see women finally have power equal to their male counterparts, but the power they reach for and deserve must be mirrored by their thoughts and actions for their sisters in the rest of the world. Reach for that and we will truly have reform.