Women in politics: Still a long way to go

Lana Payne
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Joan Burke made political history a week or so ago when she was named Government House Leader for Newfoundland and Labrador, the first woman to hold that post.
Sadly, the story on women in politics still includes a lot of firsts.
For a short time, it looked like Hillary Clinton would break through the thickest glass ceiling of them all - the presidency of the United States. But her hopes to become the first woman president, and those of the 18 million people who voted for her in the Democratic primaries, have been dashed.
Her aspirations were shattered by the rise of the charismatic Barack Obama, whose message of change and hope tapped into the hopes and dreams of U.S. voters - voters desperate for someone as different from George W. Bush as they could get.
Clinton's bid for the Democratic Party's nomination highlighted once again just how sexist the media can be when covering women in political life and just how far society has yet to evolve.
Earlier this year, Gloria Steinam wrote a blistering op-ed piece in The New York Times in which she tackled the age-old problem of sex discrimination. Clinton, she wrote, would never have been able to get away with Obama's public style without being considered too emotional by Washington pundits.
Clinton was often criticized for the way she dressed, the way she styled her hair, how tired she looked. She was lambasted for being too cold and when she did show emotion she was called out for that, too. She couldn't win. She had the most experience and yet none of it mattered. But her gender did.

No surprise
Is it any wonder women stay away from politics? Remember the vicious attack Belinda Stronach had to endure because she dared leave Stephen Harper's gated and guarded enclave? She was ripped apart in the media and by many Conservative politicians for her actions. Most of the comments were sexist, mean and unbecoming people who occupy our legislatures.
And not once were they chastised by their leader for their un-Parliamentarian remarks.
The message is clear: politics is a tough racket and not that friendly or open to women.
In our province, with the two opposition parties being lead by women and with Burke in her new role, it may appear from our local television screens that considerable progress has been made with respect to women in politics. And some has.
But the real truth is we still have a long way to go before women take their rightful number of seats in our legislatures and at decision-making tables throughout the country.
Canada is led by a male prime minister and 10 male premiers. There is no doubt that a woman's perspective at federal-provincial tables would mix up what gets discussed and what priorities are set.

Small proportion
Just 20 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons are held by women. In Atlantic Canada, just one of 32 MPs is a woman, and she announced last week that she would not seek re-election. Alexa McDonough certainly did her part to get women elected. And her party has the best record when it comes to supporting and nominating women. Upon making her announcement, she lamented the under-representation of women in political circles.
"The problem with this imbalance is that it throws democracy completely off kilter," says Leslie MacLeod, president of the Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women. "Women's lives, needs and perspectives are often different from men's. That's why it's so important to get more women in government and, more importantly, in higher levels of government."
On the world stage, Canada is by no means a world leader when it comes to women in politics or gender equity. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union's rankings, Canada is 50th in the world in terms of women federal parliamentarians, behind countries like Rwanda, Sweden, Argentina, Peru and Belarus.
In fact, according to Social Watch, the folks who keep track of what happens with gender equity in more than 150 countries, Canada's equity record isn't getting better, either.
From 2007 to 2008, Canada slipped a spot in the rankings, from 17th to 18th.
The equity index looks at the gender gap in three key areas: education, participation in the economy and empowerment. While we are doing extremely well on the education front, Canada's story in terms of women's income and political power is downright embarrassing.

Challenged to act
Equal Voice, a group devoted to getting more women elected and literally changing the face of Canadian politics, is challenging the federal political parties and their leaders to do something about the dismal record of women getting elected.
They have the power to make the change, but that also means they will have to share that power. And that is the real problem. Those with power, for the most part, do not like to give it up and they are also less inclined to share it.
Breaking down barriers so more women occupy high-profile leadership positions can't be done by women alone.
The men who will ultimately end up sharing that power must make room, share the space and give up their stranglehold on decision-making.
Our nation would be better off for it.

Lana Payne is a former journalist who is active in the labour movement. She can be reached by e-mail at lanapayne@nl.rogers.com.Her column returns June 22.

Organizations: Government House Leader, Democratic Party, New York Times House of Commons Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women Inter-Parliamentary Union

Geographic location: Atlantic Canada, United States, Newfoundland and Labrador Washington Rwanda Sweden Argentina Peru Belarus

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