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What challenges and barriers do women in political leadership face?

Brenda Robertson was the first woman elected to the New Brunswick Legislature (1970) and the first woman to become a cabinet minister in New Brunswick.

What holds women back from running for office? The Community Engaged Scholarship Institute of Guelph, Ontario and other literature categorizes the barriers women face in running for office as cultural, psychological, socioeconomic and institutional. Read on to learn more about these barriers.

Cultural Barriers


Familial obligations – In heterosexual nuclear households it is more acceptable for a man to be away from his family than a woman, women have multiple responsibilities in comparison to men, and women are expected to be more concerned with family life. Statistics Canada reveals that women not only still bear the primary responsibility for care of children, but also of the elderly. In 2010, in dual-earner couples with children aged 14 and under, women working full-time performed an average of 50 hours per week of child care, compared with 27 hours for men working full-time. ()

MPs Lisa Raitt and Ruth Brosseau discuss work life balance for female politicians.

Social Media and Internet – Female politicians experience increased bullying and harassment. Click the links below to hear some female politicians speak about such experiences.


Misogyny - Sheila Copps, a former Deputy Prime Minister of Canada in the 90s, shares her experiences in politics. “Media coverage of male politicians focused mainly on their ideas. Coverage of me focused on what I was wearing or whom I was dating. … The pitch of my voice and the cut of my hair was the subject of much media discussion.”  Copps also warns us that stereotyping is so deeply embedded that most of us have difficulty recognizing that it even exists.

Twenty years later this attitude prevails. Rona Ambrose, another former political leader, says, “I have been a powerful minister in a meeting with a foreign counterpart who assumed at introductions that my male assistant must be me and I must be the assistant.”

Senator, Sandra Lovelace Nicholas of Tobique First Nation, says, "It will take some time before men are women enough to embrace equality."

“If politics mean... the effort to secure through legislative action, better conditions of life for the people, greater opportunities for our children and other people's children... then it most assuredly is a woman's job as much as it is a man's job.” Irene Parlby, women's farm leader, activist and politician

Here is a New Brunswick example of political women facing misogynistic attitudes:  New Brunswick Women’s Council denounces political cartoon as misogynistic.

Political Culture  - The confrontational style of politics is another cultural barrier for women. Shauna Shames, Assistant Professor at Rutgers University-Camden, tells us, “Political discourse and electoral campaigns have grown extremely negative, acrimonious, and, all too often, uncivil. While acrimony and incivility seem to turn off most citizens, and turn away good potential candidates of all genders and colors, it seems to affect women more than men, and women of color most of all.”

Samara Canada published the report, No One is Listening: Incivility in the 42nd Parliament, and how to fix it, in the spring of 2017. The survey respondents indicated that women appear to be disproportionately targeted. One MP remarked: “When women Cabinet Ministers or Parliamentary Secretaries stand to answer questions, they are shouted down with much more regularity than their male colleagues.” The survey also found that women are more likely than their male counterparts to hear heckling that focuses on gender, intelligence, age, race or ethnicity, and appearance.

“I'm not frail, and I don't go running out in tears because someone has insulted me, but I do not accept that our political culture should be that of a locker room.”  Elizabeth May, Green Party leader and Parliamentarian

Psychological Barriers

Confidence (Who Me?)Women’s socialization and limited apprenticeship can create confidence issues. The Wisconsin Women’s Council (2007) shares information gathered in a study by Lawless and Fox in 2004 and 2005. More than 3,700 lawyers, business leaders, executives, educators and political activists (the professions that typically precede candidacy) were surveyed.  The study found that women who share the same personal characteristics and professional credentials as men express significantly lower levels of political ambition to hold elective office. The two key factors explaining the gender gap were women being less encouraged to run and women viewing themselves as not qualified to run. “Despite success in often male-dominated professions, women were still twice as likely as men to rate themselves "not at all qualified” to run for office; while men were about two-thirds more likely than women to consider themselves "qualified" or "very qualified." (pg. 2)

Credibility Women can be seen as less experienced and taken less seriously than their male counterparts. Women are half of the paid labour force, but even women who are not employed outside of the home should not feel disadvantaged. [Family responsibilities] should be seen as a good training ground for empathy, patience, persistence, multi-tasking, budgeting, prioritizing, anticipating the needs of others, handling challenges and difficulties arising out of the blue, enabling others and helping them grow, modelling the behaviour you want to see, and gaining the collaboration of stakeholders with different needs and motivations. (Marika, 2016, pg. 29)

“Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily this is not difficult.”  Charlotte Whitton, first female mayor of Ottawa

Socio-Economical Barriers

Child careWomen with young children may lack accessible childcare. Campaign hours and the hours required of a politician after elected can make this a significant economic burden in addition to a cultural one. See again MP's Lisa Raitt and Ellen Brosseau talking about Work Life Balance.

Campaign funding and fundraisingIt can be more challenging for a woman to raise funds for her campaign. For example, men may have more business contacts and better potential donors versus women coming from social service roles. There has also been the relative under investment in women’s campaigns by some parties.

Sacrificing paid employment to campaignVictoria Clarke says money was a challenge when she ran for a seat in the legislature in 2010. She had to take a three-month unpaid leave from work to run, at a time when she was the primary earner for her family. She was defeated by Margaret Ann Blaney. When Blaney resigned in seat in 2012, Clarke didn’t have the means to run in the byelection to fill the seat. (Reported by CBC Jan. 11, 2017)

Institutional Barriers

There are several institutional barriers that deter women from entering the political arena, beginning with winning a nomination.

Nominating ProcessDr. Joanna Everitt, political scientist at UNB, believes that winning a nomination is a competitive riding is one of the greatest barriers to getting more women elected. She explains that winnable seats are highly sought after and the party selectorates often decide in advance of nomination meetings who should be the chosen candidate. (Everitt, 2011, pg. 6). This candidate is usually a man.

Sylvia Bashevkin, a political scientist from the University of Toronto writes in her book, Women, Power, Politics: The Hidden Story of Canada's Unfinished Democracy, that women often represent leadership qualities the voting public admires. Women tend to be more community focussed and on average are more honest and trustworthy than male politicians. Party loyalty factors far outweigh individual factors such as gender. People will vote for women if given the option.

Another political scientist (University of Calgary), Melanee Thomas, points out that the core issue is the political parties and their nomination processes. Thomas also did not find that voters discriminate against female candidates. However, the party nomination committees were more likely to discriminate against women candidates.

Percentage of female candidates by party in the 2015 federal election:

In the early Fall of 2013 six out of thirteen of Canada's provinces and territories were headed by female premiers, one of whom was a lesbian. This fact might have led one to conclude that gender and sexual diversity is no longer an issue in provincial politics if were not the case that merely one year later only two of these women remained in office. Dr. Joanna Everitt, UNB-SJ

Electoral SystemThe New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women recommended more than a decade ago that New Brunswick change its electoral system from a single member plurality (SMP) system to a mixed member proportional (MMP) system. There is a direct relationship between the SMP electoral system and electing more women. Under SMP, each party can only nominate one member per riding and therefore select the candidate they think more likely to win.

In a proportional system parties can nominate more than one candidate. Votes in such a system are principally on the basis of the popular vote and women are elected more often. A higher position on the list is a stronger guarantee of getting elected. Women candidates are bound to be within the top few positions. 

Voter ApathyResearch on Canadian Attitudes about Women in Politics indicates that we suffer from voter apathy, and both men and women indicate a lack of concern with the number of women in office. Perhaps voters have this apathy because of the electoral system.

Incumbency Dr. Everitt also discusses the barrier of incumbency in her paper, Women in New Brunswick Politics: A province at the back of the pack. Everitt explains that in any given election only a few sitting members decide to retire from politics which means that the most “winnable” seats for any given party are already taken. Given the statistics of NB, they are occupied by a man. In the 2010 provincial election, only 7 of 55 ridings did not have an incumbent running in them.  In 6 out of 7 ridings, the party who had held the seat in the previous election replaced the incumbent with a man. NB’s political statistics indicate that when women candidates are chosen to run it is in ridings not won in the previous election and in ridings less likely to win, making women more electorally vulnerable.

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