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The success of women in politics signals that gender discrimination is still a problem

January 26, 2013

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.

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8 Comments
  1. Anonymous permalink

    Gender Discrimination exists because we have created institutions that are not in line with female qualities, and the focus on creating an ‘equal playing field’ has been the wrong focus. By putting females in man-dominated institutions that have defined roles for men for decades since the industrial revolution, we have created the perception that females are discriminated against. This is not the fault of us – but the fault of the socially-constructed world that we have created. The only way to overcome such discrimination is not to analyze what is at present, but to figure out ways to create new institutions – since these bodies shape how we interact with one another.

    • Thanks for this. But do you have some concrete examples to illustrate your point, or are you referring just to the way in which political parties choose their leaders?

  2. Don’t forget Charlotte Whitten’s comment:

    “Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.”

    • Thanks. For the benefit of readers outside of Canada, Charlotte Whitton is a former mayor of the City of Ottawa who played a role in, among other things, developing the city’s and the country’s social policies.

  3. I agree with much of the thrust of what you say but have a couple of nits to pick.

    First agreement: (1) my personal observation is that in the upper ranks of both business and political positions in the US there are many men of mediocre capability but that women who achieve high positions are almost always outstanding, (2) there is certainly a glass ceiling in business in the US that limits the number of women who make it to the top, (3) it appears to me that proportionally more women reach top positions in government than in business and (4) it’s easy for me to believe that the situation in Canada is similar to that I have observed in the US, cultural differences notwithstanding.

    But my nits: (1) I believe that your Obama/Bush analogy would have been much stronger had you identified past or current male Provincial Premiers of dubious qualifications and (2) I don’t believe that you’ve made the case that women enter politics and accede to the highest levels because they would face a glass ceiling in business. Another possibility could be that our North American culture subtly instills different values in women than in men, making it more likely that a woman would possess the exceptional sense of civic duty that would lure them into government.

    • Thanks for this feedback. I agree with your two latter points, particularly the very last about the glass ceiling. I guess the point should be that there is a “barrier” of some sort not related to productivity, and these are broader than just what falls under the category of “glass ceiling”. Fair enough.

  4. Thank you, Miles, for so well articulating something that I have always believed as a woman in business who is also a member of a visible minority. It is not enough to be talented. One also has to be phenomenally smart, dare I say, good looking AND talented to rise above often unacknowledged gender and racial discrimination barriers. Having no more talent than average is not enough — especially for women who also birth babies. run households and “bring home the bacon”. Certainly our white, female politicians are trailblazers, but I’m waiting for the day when a female immigrant of color becomes premier, or indeed Prime Minister. That will truly be something to marvel at. I look forward to hearing you speak at @TEDxWaterloo 2013 next month!

  5. Todd permalink

    “The success of women in politics signals that gender discrimination is still a problem” The fact you wrote this stupid logical fallacy and still wrote an article about it says a lot. While having several women premiers, black presidents, etc doesn’t mean racism and sexism are completely over and done with- it signals we’re on the right track and things are getting better. It’s not a signal things are bad, Redford is a proven idiot (budgeting on oil prices no human on earth was projecting, then being shocked her budget isn’t balanced) so by your own logic we know that discrimination is a truly a thing of the past, as we elected a dumb woman premier.

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