Many months before Justin Trudeau was elected Prime Minister designate, he made a very specific promise. He promised that as Prime Minister he would appoint a Cabinet featuring an equal number of men and women.
I have been turning this idea over in my head in the months since Mr. Trudeau made that promise. If I’m honest, I’m still not sure how I feel about it.
On the one hand, I respect and admire his desire to promote women to positions of power and responsibility. Women have fared only marginally well in Canadian politics over the past decade. Up until recently, there were 308 Parliamentary seats up for grabs across Canada, and in 2011 women won just 76 of them, representing 25% of the elected Parliamentarians.
Last week’s federal election saw the addition of 30 seats, making a grand total of 338 seats available. The new Liberal government ran on a platform of progressive change, and swept the country for a commanding majority. Justin Trudeau made women’s issues prominent by decreeing that all his MPs would have to vote pro-choice regardless of personal belief, and by his commitment of a gender-equal Cabinet. And yet, just 27% of the new Liberal caucus is female (50 Members of Parliament). Across all parties, only 88 women were elected to the House of Commons – a total of 26% of all Parliamentarians, only a 1% increase from the Conservative majority of 2011.
Using this cursory assessment, one could conclude that expecting women to attain positions of power in government through ‘natural’ processes and generational change is naive and fruitless. Despite the many contrasts between Canada’s main two parties, female participation in the traditionally more progressive party (the aptly named Liberals) is only negligibly different than female participation in the more traditionally socially (C)onservative party. This suggests further action is needed.
In that vein, Mr. Trudeau’s promise for gender-equality in Cabinet is a positive step. The Liberal party is an established organization which attracts qualified, intelligent candidates of both genders. There should be minimal argument that any of the elected female MPs don’t have at least the potential for a successful Ministerial posting.
However as always in gender politics, acceptance of female achievement does not always flow naturally from the achievement itself. Ironically, Conservative MP (and probable leadership contender) Michelle Rempel highlighted this issue with a series of tweets in which she gamed out a potential run to be party boss.
Every woman reading these brief statements could identify with the sentiments she expressed. Wait your turn (like a nice little girl). Don’t be pushy (BOSSY!). Consider their feelings (above your own).
As an aside, I have experience with this issue in my own professional life. Before applying for a job, I once sat down with an admired female colleague to ask her to review my resume and CV for me. She looked at it carefully, then got out the red pen. She unceremoniously deleted *every single time* (and there were many) in my cover letter where I inserted qualifiers for my skills. “I believe that I have leadership skills because of X”. “I feel that I am a team player because of Y”.
That day, my friend gave me some of the wisest advice I’ve ever received. She told me that men don’t sugar coat their achievements. A man’s cover letter would say “I am a leader because X”, or “I fostered a team environment by doing Y”. These words have stuck with me and I have passed them along to every young woman who has followed in my path. Don’t qualify your skills and don’t apologize for your legitimate requests. Just last week I gently chastised one young female friend who sent our boss a request for training, along with an apology for the associated cost and an acknowledgement that the department may not be able to accommodate her request. Very polite on a social level, but professionally self-sabotaging. And undeniably female.
If you don’t truly believe that you are worthy, why would anyone else believe it?
So it’s clear that there continues to exist a gaping chasm between men and women in the workplace. It’s a shrinking chasm to be sure, but a 25% participation rate in the halls of our government in 2015 doesn’t lie. It’s tempting – very tempting – to solve this problem with Mr. Trudeau’s gender equality pledge.
The reality however, is that his pledge also promises to bring with it years, maybe a decade, of side-eye and snark directed towards these female leaders. Oh she was appointed to the Cabinet that year that they implemented gender equality (translation: she wasn’t really qualified but got the job because of her lady parts). Worse, there is the possibility that Mr. Trudeau fills the “female” Cabinet positions with his quota women.
Come to think of it, I haven’t seen too many women’s names floated for the prestigious posts – Finance, Defense, Public Safety, Foreign Affairs.
There is also the very legitimate backlash from men who have spent years, decades, working hard and building their credentials only to be passed over because of 2015’s version of Affirmative Action. For true feminists, this in no way represents real equality.
So what is the solution? Do I support Trudeau’s pledge or not? I’m still not sure. More importantly, will a gender-equal Cabinet in 2015 translate to more female candidates and elected MPs in 2019? I don’t know. I think the solution runs deeper than that.
I very badly want to believe that Mr. Trudeau is sincere in his desire for change and grassroots progress. If it is true that he is, I’m hopeful that his party will institute a much more comprehensive recruitment, mentorship, and development process for female candidates in the future. This is the only way that we truly move forward and not only equip women for leadership positions, but also insulate them from the shade of sexism and the dismissal of their accomplishments.
Mr. Trudeau – Canadian women *are* ready for Real Change Now – and we’re counting on you to work with us to achieve it.