These past three weeks my home country (Canada) saw quite the shake up in National politics. Not only did the Conservative party lose its stronghold on Parliament after almost a decade, but, the new Liberal majority leadership has received the most press for its follow-through on its commitment to create a federal Cabinet that more closely mirrors the Canadian populations, including gender parity. This is the first time in the history of Canadian government that there has been a 50-50 split between men and women. To be completely unscientific, I would say that it is more typically an 80-20 split to men (and I might even be a bit generous with my estimate).
I’ll be the first to admit that I showed a sense of pride with this symbolic move. It makes me excited about the new federal regime and these early positive moves on the part of the Prime Minister. I had been losing hope in Canada’s leadership and what role it could / would play on the international stage.
However, the more that I think of the move towards gender parity in the Cabinet, the more I realize my feelings are incredibly mixed. Why? Well, to quote Prime Minister Trudeau when asked, “It’s 2015”.
Where Trudeau made this somewhat glib remark when media questioned him as to why he would construct a Cabinet that was gender balanced, I am saying it with a bit of a different tone. I have a bunch of thoughts to get off my chest – some negative, some positive, some just postulations or questions about the future.
For one, I’m disappointed that in 2015 it is revolutionary to compose a group of government leaders with a 50-50 split of men and women. I am incredibly proud that a young leader like the new Prime Minister Trudeau is willing to take bold, but simple actions to try to construct a team that comes a bit closer to representing the diversity of Canada. However, it still feels like a kick in the teeth when it is such a big deal in the media and to people that parity was achieved. Women’s suffrage was established in Canada in 1918. But it’s taken almost 100 years to finally achieve a Cabinet with 50 percent female representation. (Note: The split in actual Parliament is a far cry from gender balanced still too.)
Sadly, amidst the positive development, the news also exposed the biases and sexist views still held by many Canadians. Suddenly media and many men became concerned with the credentials of the new cabinet members and are calling for appointments to be a meritocracy.
These new cabinet members are not exactly amateurs. There are first nations leaders, esteemed lawyers, Nobel prize winners, human rights and social justice experts….just to name a few. No Cabinet announcement that I can recall had such widespread coverage of the credentials of the male Ministers. No one was picking apart their resumes in the past. Heck, I even grew up in a province that for YEARS was under the leadership of a gentleman who was a recovering alcoholic who didn’t graduate from high school. I know that it didn’t preclude him from doing some good things, but he held office for YEARS without too much questioning. If we are concerned with credibility, let’s look at everyone!
Additionally, I don’t think this will be the end of scrutiny for these female leaders. When will the criticism of their outfits begin (or what I like to call the “Hillary effect”)? When will they start to bring their family life into the spotlight? And, how little leash is the media going to give them as they try to do their jobs?
Was this news simply symbolic or will we see a true shift in the balance of power in our government? Although more women were appointed to the Cabinet, not all of them were given roles of true power (originally) Some of the women put into Cabinet were originally appointed into newly created “Junior” ministries – a position with limited power and no signing authority. Some speculate that this was done in an effort to actually achieve a 50-50 gender split. Sure, many of the women were put into heavy and important portfolios like Justice and Environment and Climate Change, but 5 were not….initially. Fortunately, once the media uncovered this “fine print”, Trudeau upgraded these roles to Senior ministers with authority like any other member of the Cabinet.
Looking forward, I’m optimistic. In particular, I’m very excited by the possibilities with women in charge of these heavy portfolios. In particular, I’m interested to see what sort of work can be done on the Environment and Climate Change portfolio. I recently had an exceptional conversation with an individual who has spent the last decade of his career looking at cultural shifts and behaviour change. He spoke about the importance of relationship building to create positive change at the scale needed to address some of the world’s most complex problems, AND women’s strength in facilitating those strong relationships. I would tend to agree and really look forward to these women charging forward on these portfolios.
Lastly, I wonder how this symbolic action to create an example of gender parity will shape an interest in politics among not only women, but also Generation Y and Millennials? I’m not sure, but based on the social media flurry that continues even three weeks after the election, it may be a weak signal of some positive civic engagement.
– Sabrina Sullivan is a proud Canadian, boomerang consultant, aspiring futurist, wife and new mother, serial volunteer, sustainability leader, as well as a lover of painting, all things food and Netflix binges.