June 14, 2022

Four women join race for UCP leadership

Alberta politics becoming more open to diverse candidates, says UCalgary political science professor Susan Franceschet
Women UCP candidates
Joining the race to replace UCP leader Jason Kenney are, from left: Leela Aheer, Rebecca Schulz, Rajan Sawhney and Danielle Smith. Courtesy @LeelaAheer, @rebeccakschulz, @RajanJSaw, @ABDanielleSmith

Despite the long race ahead, a United Conservative Party (UCP) leadership ballot boasting a record number of women is already a winning ticket for Alberta, says a UCalgary political scientist.

The June 14 announcement of a fourth woman joining the eight-person race to replace Alberta Premier Jason Kenney as party leader is not only a provincial record, but an indication Alberta’s political spectrum is more open to women’s leadership in 2022, says Dr. Susan Franceschet, PhD.

“It says we’ve come a long way in Alberta, and it speaks a lot about the fact that women in politics in Alberta are now recognized and accepted,” says Franceschet, whose research focuses on women's political representation.

A crowded, but diverse leadership race

Alberta’s Children’s Services Minister Rebecca Schulz became the fourth woman to enter the leadership fray, following the announcement by Alberta Transportation Minister Rajan Sawhney, BA'94, MBA'07, one day earlier.

The pair, who resigned from caucus to enter the contest, join UCP backbencher Leela Aheer and former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith, BA'93, BA'97, as candidates for the leadership race, which has no official voting day as of yet.

Susan Franceschet

Dr. Susan Franceschet

Filling out the eight-candidate contest are former UCP Finance minister Travis Toews, former Wildrose leader Brian Jean, former UCP Caucus chair Todd Loewen, and Bill Rock, mayor of the village of Amisk, about 150 km east of Red Deer.

Franceschet, a professor in the Department of Political Science, says diversity on the UCP ballot goes beyond gender, another significant indication that the face of Alberta politics is changing.

“What stands out even more than parity in gender terms is that two of these women are women of colour, and that’s significant as well,” says Franceschet.

“Some places see an incredible growth in the number of women, but the pool of women candidates is not very diverse, whereas the pool of UCP leadership candidates has more than just gender diversity. I think that says something about Alberta politics changing, as well.”

In mid-May, Kenney announced he was resigning as UCP leader after receiving 51.4 per cent in his leadership-review vote, enough to technically stay on, but not enough to show party support.

Observing how Albertans treat female vs. male candidates

Franceschet says the true test of accepting women as leaders in Alberta politics will come during the race to replace Kenney, and will be measured in how Albertans treat the women as compared to the male candidates.

“What I would be watching for now is not just counting the number of candidates, but the reaction to these women candidates, in how they are viewed by the public, or what questions they are asked by the media,” says Franceschet.

Examples of inequality could include questions about having children in a demanding job, or a focus on physical appearance, including how they dress.

“That sort of thing is relevant because of how the last two women premiers were treated in media and social media, in a way that was more negative than their male counterparts,” Franceschet says.

Taking inspiration from past trailblazers

But those women premiers Alison Redford and Rachel Notely along with prominent women politicians like Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek, MA'03, PhD'14, are likely key inspirations for the slate of women looking to replace Kenney, says Franceschet.

Indeed, if one of the women candidates takes the helm of the UCP, Notley as former premier and current leader of the opposition NDP may find herself in an election race inspired by her own success.

“In political science, we call it the role model effect women leaders inspire other women and it doesn’t matter if the person is from a different party, you are still seeing a successful woman leader,” says Franceschet.

“And Rachel Notley also appointed the first gender-parity cabinet, so she raised the bar further by promoting a lot of other women.”

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