Female politicians face unfair expectations — panel

March 28, 2017
Bromley Chamberlain, ATA News Staff
JONATHAN TEGHTMEYER

Pollster and political analyst Janet Brown speaks during a panel on women in politics held at Barnett House on March 17.

Women in politics have always been treated differently than men.

That was the central theme of a panel discussion during the Political Engagement Seminar hosted by the Alberta Teachers’ Association on March 17 at Barnett House.

The five-person panel consisted of pollster Janet Brown, former chair of Equal Voice Amanda Neilsen, gender consultant Cristina Stasia and journalists Trisha Estabrooks and Alexandra Zabjek.

The panel discussed many issues facing women in politics today, including the impact of Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States.

“In many ways, he has brought this issue of women in politics front and centre,” Estabrooks said. “His election served as a rallying cry for many women and for many people who support having more women in politics.”

She stated that, during the U.S. election, many Canadians couldn’t look away, even though it was not their leader being elected.

“I think in the United States, the women there, and people who support women, certainly have an enemy to rally around,” Estabrooks said. “Interestingly, that enemy has crossed the border into our country as well.”

On the issue of women in politics being treated differently than men, Brown related an anecdote about one of her focus groups in which a woman asked why Rachel Notley didn’t get a better hairdresser.

“Sometimes I think we are letting the sisterhood down,” Brown said. “I have really been thinking of this for 30 years, all the years I have been in politics. We have different expectations of female politicians than male politicians.”

She said that discussions about the need to attract more women to politics revolves around the idea that women would do things differently.

“I think one of the things Alison Redford struggled with [was] people said, oh good, a woman, oh good a mother — she is going to be sympathetic, she is going to be this, she is going to be that,” Brown said.

“This is nothing against Alison Redford, but anyone who followed her career who knew her up until the point she became leader of the PC party, she never really exhibited any of those soft, touchy-feely things as a politician.”

Brown went on to say that, in political science theory, the expectations of female candidates can be summed up as “husbands, hemlines and heels.”

“The three things female politicians are judged on,” she said.

Stasia witnessed these expectations herself when she ran for the Alberta Party in the 2015 election.

“My partner, who is a man, continually through the campaign would get a lot of questions. One of the things he would get a lot of was, ‘Oh my gosh, you are amazing. I can’t believe you are letting her run for office,’” Stasia said. “Then they would come to me and say, ‘Oh my god, you are so lucky that he supports you.’  I support him — we’re married — I feel like that’s the game.” ❚

How to increase engagement

Panelist shares her thoughts

Panel moderator Shelley Magnusson, an ATA executive staff officer, shared the following stats with the panelists: the teaching profession in Alberta is composed of
74 per cent women but only 41 per cent are principals; 11 per cent of superintendents are women. Also, the ATA’s Provincial Executive Council is 47 per cent women, 40 per cent of local presidents are women, and 37 per cent of executive staff officers are women.

Research shows that women need to be asked at least three times to put their names forward for leadership positions and that, although men will apply for jobs if they have 60 per cent of the qualifications, women feel they need to have at least 90 per cent, Magnusson said. Research has also shown that men are hired on their potential while women are hired by what they know and can do at the moment.

“Given all this,” she asked, “what advice do you have for us as an organization and as individuals to encourage more women to become engaged?”

Gender consultant Cristina Stasia stated the following as part of her answer.

“I am sorry to hear those stats, but I am completely unsurprised to hear those stats at the same time.”

“One of the things that is really important as an organization is to bring in that introspective analysis and training. How do we become aware of our own privileges and biases? What got us where we are? Sure we are smart, talented and articulate, but our race and gender and sexual orientation factor in, for better or for worse.”

“We have to start reaching for power. You won’t always get asked three times to run. I don’t know why a woman would doubt running for office if she is capable of a leadership position — Trump is president. May every woman have the confidence of a mediocre white man. Until that happens, women have to stop being scared of power.