The success of women in politics signals that gender discrimination is still a problem
Women now rule over almost 9 out of every ten Canadians!
Well, at least in politics. Over the weekend Ms. Wynne won the leadership of the Ontario Liberal Party and became premier of the province. Six of Canada’s 13 provinces and territories, representing about 88% of the population and including five provinces that collectively form a significant part of the national economy, now have women as their premiers.
Does this firm foothold on Canada’s political landscape mean that the women’s movement has come of age, and that the idea of gender discrimination in the workplace can be put aside? Ironically, it probably means just the opposite. Having politics transformed by women certainly illustrates that some of feminism’s rhetoric is tired and old. The broader lesson isn’t that women get paid less than men, after all Ontario’s new premier will have a salary that is the same as her predecessor. And frankly, overt wage discrimination isn’t the issue in the broader private sector either.
Rather it all has to do with having what it takes to qualify for the job. If women are increasing succeeding in the public sector, we might reasonably take that to be a signal that the most talented women in our society are bumping up against glass ceilings in the private sector.
In the aftermath of the 2008 US presidential election, when many Americans were beaming with pride that their country had elected its first black president, I heard a professional colleague—a highly respected expert on the economics of discrimination—say, while reflecting on the intellectual credentials of President Obama compared to his predecessor, “we will know that discrimination is a truly a thing of the past only after we elect a dumb black president.”
Wry and caustic as this comment is, it nonetheless embodies a certain truth.
The unstated starting point is the fact that as a group blacks and whites are entirely equal in their skills and talents, but also that skills and talents are not equally distributed among the members of either group. The argument also assumes that blacks and whites differ in the barriers they face in getting access to jobs: a black person having to be exceptionally bright and talented to be able to jump over these barriers and land a job for which a white person of lesser ability would more easily qualify.
Even a brief look at the credentials of Canada’s women premiers makes clear that not only are these extremely accomplished individuals, but also that they have managed to balance the challenges of both career and family. They succeeded in politics not simply by working harder and longer. They did more. Heck, two of them even gave birth while they were active politicians and ministers of the crown. These women worked just as hard if not harder than their male counterparts, but frankly they are also probably smarter and more motivated than the average male politician.
According to my colleague’s logic, it is reasonable to suppose that they are competing against men of lesser talent. In some sense politics is a thankless job. Talented people have much better things, and better paid things, to do than to tolerate the kind of scrutiny and abuse that have become part of a senior politician’s daily life.
Among the most talented in our society it is only those with an exceptional sense of civic duty that are willing to give up what could easily be much more lucrative and gratifying alternatives. Unless of course they are shut out of those possibilities because of the colour of their skin, their gender, the accent of their voice, or any other characteristic not related to their productivity. As prevalent as women have become at the highest points on our political landscape, they are notably less absent on the highest points of the private sector, the boardrooms and corner offices remaining a male domain. So these women go into politics!
If there is any merit to this reasoning, we will truly know that gender discrimination is a thing of the past when we elect a woman premier who is no more talented than the average.