When the writ drops on the 2023 Alberta provincial general election, voters will be facing a rare political scenario: an incumbent female premier in the UCP’s Danielle Smith, and — barring a dramatic upset — a female premier elected, with either Smith or the NDP’s Rachel Notley holding the top job.
It’s a situation that has only occurred once before in Canadian politics, also in Alberta. Just over a decade ago, Alison Redford’s Progressive Conservatives defeated Smith’s Wildrose Party in the 2012 general election.
Beyond Smith and Notley, Alberta also has two other registered political parties with female leaders in Marilyn Burns of the Advantage Party of Alberta and Naomi Rankin of the Communist Party – Alberta.
“Part of the reason for this is systemic sexism makes accessing positions like leadership for electorally competitive parties exceptional for women,” says Dr. Melanee Thomas, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Calgary.
Sexism makes for 'exceptional' women
Thomas’s research shows women’s paths to these leadership positions are profoundly different than men’s, with women more likely to be selected to lead a party while it is in government, as Redford and Smith were with different iterations of the Conservative Party. Notley was the first woman to become non-incumbent premier by winning a general election in 2015.
“What we’re dealing with is a bunch of exceptional women,” says Thomas. “But the reason why they’re exceptions is because of the sexism that keeps Canadian politics disproportionately masculinized.”
However, could having these exceptional women contest an election impact a new generation of young women looking to enter politics? Rachel Grigg, BA’20, an MA student in the Department of Political Science says it’s possible, as there is a role-model effect that can occur when a woman is in a leadership position, like premier, prime minister, or president.
“It can lead to more discussions about politics in the home which then causes young girls to engage in politics more,” explains Grigg. “There is also an element of symbolism and emotional response to it.”
Grigg says it’s important any time a woman is contesting an election, as it can have an impact on political ambition, as well as normalizing women’s spot in politics.
News media coverage differs
One reason women may be less inclined to pursue a leadership position is the way they are covered and portrayed by the media.
Thomas did research looking at the first year in office of three female premiers and the males that preceded them, including Rachel Notley and Jim Prentice. She found that the Alberta media wrote more stories about Prentice in the nine months he was in office than they did about Notley in a year.
“Prentice certainly did interesting things in office, like the merger with Danielle Smith, but Rachel Notley was the first leader of a party that wasn’t a conservative party that won government in Alberta since 1971 and that still generated fewer news articles in a year,” says Thomas.
This pattern also held for all women in the analysis. In an automated content analysis of almost 12,000 articles, there were significantly more feminine identifiers (she/her) that showed up in the text about female premiers, but there was no difference in the number of masculine identifiers (he/him) that showed up in the texts about female and male premiers.
“The norms about talking about politics in masculine terms are the same regardless of whether the premier is a woman or a man,” says Thomas.
It’s not only about the coverage, but also the way in which female leaders are presented by the media that can turn potential politicians away. As part of her research, Grigg interviews young, politically engaged women to gauge their interest in running for office, and a consistent trend has emerged.
Why some women are deterred from politics
“They say ‘yes, I’d like to do that, and I do think I’m qualified, however, I see how other women are treated and how they are treated differently than men by the media and it’s definitely a deterrent,’” says Grigg.
“If you’re seeing someone be dragged through the mud for what they’re wearing, their family life, and all those things reporters tend to focus on more so with women than with men, it can definitely deter you from wanting to put yourself in that spotlight.”
Thomas says the election of either Smith or Notley is a necessary step for historically under-represented, currently under-represented, and marginalized groups in politics.
It shouldn’t be seen as weird that the head of government heading into an election is a woman and you’re pretty much guaranteed a woman will be a head of government coming out of it, I don’t think that’s something people should be unused to or uncomfortable with.
Both Grigg and Thomas noted having two women who are white and cisgender may not necessarily move the needle for all under-represented groups, though.
“Just because a woman is in office doesn’t necessarily mean all women are going to see themselves reflected in that because there is huge diversity among women,” says Grigg.
However, the role of creating space for under-represented groups shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of just leaders; it needs to be a party-wide endeavour.
“We need parties to be doing a much better job of recruiting candidates that reflect the diversity of Canadians,” says Thomas. “That’s what brings in different ideas.”