Equal Voice has renewed its efforts to rectify the under-representation of women in political office. In 2007, Quebec Premier Jean Charest broke new ground with the first cabinet in North America to have equal representation of women.
But Canada is 48th in the world with 21 per cent women in Parliament, a marginal increase from 18 per cent in 1993. Gendered notions of leadership are deeply engrained in our culture and reinforced at every turn. Media coverage of female leaders — whether former prime minister Kim Campbell or U.S.
Democratic leadership candidate Hilary Clinton — reveals subtle but profound biases. They are held to a higher standard and less likely to be recognized for their achievements. As Ann Richards, the late governor of Texas, said, “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did. Backwards and in high heels.”
Hidden assumptions reinforce the “glass ceiling” across sectors. In spite of undeniable progress — women now comprise 30 per cent of senior managers in large banks in Canada compared to seven per cent in 1991 — invisible barriers remain.
A study of Canadian managers by Ryerson’s Diversity Institute and Catalyst showed corporate women believed they were held to a higher standard. Helman and Hayes confirmed that women’s achievements are usually devalued. Research shows they must be more “likable“ than men and are often punished for behaviours that are rewarded in men. “Strong” females are generally disliked while assertive men are “admired.” “He is decisive. She is a b----.” When women are labelled “control freaks,” men, acting the same way, are seen as “highly committed.”
At the same time, the socialization of girls tends to limit expectations and self-confidence. In Grade 3 standardized tests, girls outperform boys in both math and English. But when asked, “Are you good at math or English?” boys were more likely to say yes to both.
This confidence gap continues as they climb the corporate ladder — women are less likely to broadcast their achievements than men and are less likely to negotiate for raises and promotions. They are more likely to blame themselves for failures and share the credit for successes than men.
In spite of the undeniable progress, there is still work to be done and it must focus on multiple levels.
Among the priorities? Representation of women leaders in the media; policies and practices in organizations; and early education to ensure girls aim high, and give and take credit where credit is due.