Catherine McKenna/ (top), Rona Ambrose/ (bottom)

Climate barbies and superheroes

Tackling the gender gap and pervasive sexism in Canadian politics

By Alexandra Harvey, Opinion Editor -- November 7, 2017

The tension was palpable at a Nov. 3 press conference in Vancouver when Environment Minister Catherine McKenna stood up to a reporter from Rebel Media, asking that the organization refrain from calling her a “Climate Barbie.” The initial comment resulted in a ferocious back-and-forth exchange in which the Rebel reporter, Christopher Wilson, claimed that he had never personally used the derogatory nickname—a blatant lie. The term has been used repeatedly by the reporter on his Twitter account. McKenna’s risk in making this statement was clear, and things got pretty awkward. Yet McKenna, more than most, understands that sometimes women need to brave discomfort and ridicule to stand up for their right to be treated as legitimate politicians.

McKenna assumed office in October 2015 as Liberal Member of Parliament (MP) for Ottawa Centre and was appointed Minister of Environment and Climate Change in Trudeau’s Cabinet the following month. As a leading female figure in federal politics, she is keenly aware of the ingrained sexism.

In the House of Commons, this often takes the form of disproportionate heckling toward female MPs during question period. Bullying has only worsened in the age of social media, when private citizens turn to Twitter and other online platforms to perpetuate sexist rhetoric.

“[When] I went into this job, […] I don’t know that I expected that some people would decide that it was OK to call me names, and make fun of the way that I dress, or speak, or look,” McKenna said in an interview with The McGill Tribune. “I’m quite happy to take people on or have discussions about policy […] but having to also do this rear guard action about things that are completely irrelevant to what you’re trying to do […], that is tough.”

Former MP Rona Ambrose is one of only three women in Canadian political history to serve as Leader of the Opposition. She was a strong champion for women’s rights during her 13 years in politics in her various positions in the Cabinet and as leader of the federal Conservative party from November 2015 to May 2017. Before leaving politics, she introduced the groundbreaking Bill C-337, legislation that would institute mandatory sexual assault training for judges. The bill passed unanimously in the House of Commons in May, but has yet to go through the Senate.

“My bill is being held up and it’s just sitting there,” Ambrose said. “[It deals] with a really important women’s issue. There are still a lot of men who don’t think these are issues that we need to talk about [....] They roll their eyes at this stuff. It’s very frustrating. When I see that, I think we’ve still got a long way to go.”

Her experience with sexism as a woman in public service echoes McKenna’s, and she has made it clear that she will not be silent on the issue.

“The political environment is extremely sexist for women,” Ambrose said. “I’ve dealt with unbelievable attacks on social media [...] these are people [who] are extremely sexist and misogynistic, and [who] use very violent language, [even threatening] sexual violence. I’ve never seen that toward men [....] We, as women in politics, have never, ever known anything different.”

McKenna and Ambrose are not alone in their battles against systemic sexism in politics. In a 2016 study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, 65.5 per cent of female parliamentarians from 39 countries reported that they had been subjected to “humiliating sexual or sexist remarks while in office.” In most cases, these sexist remarks were made by their male colleagues. Such attempts to demean and objectify female politicians—especially coming from inside the political sphere—exacerbate the patriarchal culture in politics and discourage other women from getting involved.

Professor Kelly Gordon, assistant professor of Political Science at McGill University, acknowledged that Canadian federal politics can be toxic for women. In particular, she emphasized the stereotypical notion of masculinity that dominates politics.

“For example, one of the first times that [Trudeau] was viewed as a serious contender in politics was after his boxing match with Brazeau,” Gordon explained. “If that is the prerequisite to entering politics and being a political contender, then that excludes a lot of women and a lot of men. [....] It’s a very masculinized sort of culture.”

In a climate where political legitimacy and machismo seem to go hand in hand, women are left out. Those who do choose to enter politics are held to the standards of an ‘old boys club.’ Yet, more and more women are refusing to conform and, in doing so, are actively changing the ways that political institutions operate. McKenna and Ambrose are just two of these trailblazing women. Hopefully, the momentum generated by female politicians will help dismantle the systemic sexism underlying politics.

Hillary Clinton, the first female presidential nominee of a major American party, expressed this sentiment to a sea of empowered fans in Montreal on Oct. 23.

“The only way we will get sexism out of politics is to get more women into politics,” Clinton said.

According to Clinton, barriers to female involvement will become less prevalent once women are adequately represented in parliament. Closing the gender representational gap in Canada is crucial to inciting progress: Currently, women make up only 26 per cent of the House of Commons members. Canada ranks 64th in the world for female representation in parliament, a placement that pales in comparison to the gender balance in many developing countries.


"Women only occupy 88 of the 338 seats in the Canadian House of Commons." (Illustration by: Gal Sandaev)

The shortage of female voices in politics means that women’s issues aren’t always on the agenda. This is a problem, according to Nancy Peckford, national spokesperson and executive director for Equal Voice, a multi-partisan organization dedicated to increasing female representation at all levels of government in Canada.

“Women bring a perspective that is not as frequently considered but matters a great deal to the public interest,” Peckford wrote in an email to the Tribune. “There is so much value in what women have to offer.”

Equal Voice aims to ensure that the female perspective is heard in Canadian politics. The organization is pursuing this mission by bringing together and empowering current and future female leaders. Most recently, Equal Voice championed an initiative called Daughters of the Vote, which invited 338 young emerging female leaders—one from each federal riding—to take MPs’ seats in the House of Commons.

Gordon also underscored the importance of having a parliament that reflects the demographic makeup of the country. Gordon sees childcare as a major issue that parliament doesn’t talk about enough—likely because the affected voices aren’t there to advocate for it.

“It’s such a huge issue and it doesn’t even seem to be on the national agenda […],” Gordon said. “Childcare gets no coverage and it’s a huge issue for women [...] because it’s a barrier to entering politics. It’s a barrier to entering the workforce.”

Ambrose sees the tension between family responsibilities and the demanding requirements of political life as the primary barrier to female political involvement, underscoring the importance of making childcare accessible.

“People understand that there are great women,” McKenna said. “We have to go recruit them. We have to go support them. And we have to help ensure that they win.”

“Regardless of how far we’ve come, women still, in many instances, bear a greater responsibility in terms of [being a] caregiver,” Ambrose said. “It’s impossible to have a work-life balance that includes a family [....] Men succeed more at dealing with these challenges because they usually have a spouse who stays at home with the children [....] That’s not the case for the women I know.”

The irony is that it may require getting more female voices in politics to raise awareness on this issue. But, according to Ambrose, that may not be possible as long as childcare isn’t getting legislative attention. So the cycle endures.

Gordon views our current single-member plurality (SMP) electoral system as the primary institutional barrier to female representation in politics. SMP systems tend to encourage candidate-centric rather than partisan voting patterns. As such, parties within this zero-sum system may be more hesitant to nominate female candidates since they perceive them to be a riskier choice. Indeed, countries with proportional representation (PR) have made the most significant strides in achieving gender parity within their political spheres, since it is much easier to mandate gender parity at the party level. PR-based systems, such as Bolivia, have also succeeded in applying zipper quotas—legislation that mandates parties to elect alternate male and female candidates—to boost female representation.

However, there are opportunities to encourage female involvement in politics even within the confines of our electoral system. Gordon and McKenna both believe that political parties must commit to running a larger number of female candidates. Getting more female names on the ballot could possibly make all the difference, since recent Abacus data notes the absence of a significant gender bias in the Canadian electorate.

“People understand that there are great women,” McKenna said. “We have to go recruit them. We have to go support them. And we have to help ensure that they win.”

The main challenge in this regard seems to be convincing women to run. Research shows that women need to be asked many more times than men before they finally put their name forward. In an Abacus data poll, 28 per cent of men expressed desire to enter politics but only 15 per cent of women showed interest. This reluctance circles back to the pervasive sexism in politics that constantly tells women they aren’t good enough.

“Women still second-guess [themselves],” McKenna said. “[They] think maybe [they’re] not perfect, [... they] don’t have all the skills and maybe not all the experience.”

Encouraging women to get involved requires breaking some perceived political rules. McKenna strongly believes that women—and all aspiring politicians, for that matter—should feel comfortable doing things their own way.

“Everyone tells you that you have to do things a certain way, but that didn’t fit with what my views were, with what I wanted to do or how I wanted to approach things,” McKenna said. “[…] I used my own networks, like my kids’ friends’ mums. When I did my campaign we did a flash dance mob!”

McKenna’s pride and confidence are contagious—and this type of enthusiasm surrounding female-centric political methods is warranted. Women have something unique to offer. They need to understand that their specific experiences as women may allow them to tap into different communities or networks for support. Equalizing parliamentary representation makes way for new voices that will ultimately reach more people. McKenna followed her own rules, and garnered support from her own communities, especially drawing on her experience as a mother—an identity exclusive to women. This was key to her becoming the first female MP of Ottawa Centre.

McKenna points out that politics is a dynamic field, and as our society becomes more open, so do our representational systems.

“As a politician, you can use your voice to change the environment for women,” Ambrose said. “It’s an incredibly worthy thing to do.”

“Ottawa Centre has a huge ‘old boys club,’ and many of them thought I couldn’t win, so they said ‘why would you run there?’” McKenna said. “But now there’s a ‘new girls club,’ and the people that were most supportive of me were women.”

Ambrose also believes in the power of female unity, and thinks that it may be the answer to closing the representational gender gap.

“[Sexism] should not stand in the way of [a woman] who would like to run for office,” Ambrose said. “There is a sense of […] sisterhood. Women do band together around these issues. There are a lot more women in politics than there used to be.”

Ambrose continues to defend the right of every woman to exercise her voice in politics. Her message to aspiring female politicians? “You are equal, you are worthy, and you can do it.” Ambrose also emphasized the importance of electing female leaders to improve the political climate for women.

“As a politician, you can use your voice to change the environment for women,” Ambrose said. “It’s an incredibly worthy thing to do.”

Leaders like McKenna and Ambrose, and organizations such as Equal Voice, are undoubtedly making great strides in promoting a political sphere more conducive to female success. Equal Voice’s ultimate objective with initiatives such as Daughters of the Vote is to “ensure women are dynamic and equal participants at every political decision making table in the country.” Slowly but surely, this dream is coming true.

The most recent step toward achieving this goal fell close to home. On Nov. 5, Valérie Plante became the first woman to be elected as mayor of Montreal, and women everywhere are celebrating—especially McKenna.

“It warms my heart,” McKenna said. “I think that [Montreal’s] new mayor did it on her own terms. She was happy, and she was real [....] She cared about issues and she was herself.”

There is still so much more to be done. But inspiring women are leading the march toward change, and with hope, someday female politicians will be exclusively recognized for their value and experience. And instead of being compared to Barbie dolls, female politicians will be seen for what they really are—superheroes.