For female politicians, equality is hard work
TheStar.com – news/Canada
Published On Fri Feb 04 2011. Susan Delacourt, Ottawa Bureau
One of the best quips about women in politics came from Charlotte Whitton, the first woman to be mayor of a major Canadian city, Ottawa, back in the 1950s. Whitton said, famously: “Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good.”
Though the quote comes from a Canadian, it took the Americans to prove it was true — half a century later.
A major new study to be published in the American Journal of Political Science shows female politicians in the United States are more successful than their male counterparts in raising money, winning projects for their districts, and pushing bills through Congress. And it isn’t just modest success — on average, women obtained $49 million more than men for their home districts, introduced three more bills per session, and co-sponsored 26 more pieces of legislation than men, in each Congress since 1984.
The authors of the study offer a simple explanation: female politicians have more to prove. “Our theory simply identifies a connection between the economics of discrimination and models of political agency: When sex discrimination is present among voters, women must be better than their male counterparts to be elected,” University of Chicago professor Christopher Berry stated in the announcement of the study’s results.
Berry and his co-author, Sarah Anzia, call it the “Jackie (and Jill) Robinson Effect” — a reference to the first black player in major league baseball, who also had a lot to prove to break into the white man’s sport, and who is still seen as one of the best players of all time.
But it could well be called the “Whitton Effect,” too. Or, if you prefer, just think about it in terms of that old rental-car slogan: “When you’re number two, you try harder.”
In Canada, it’s not as easy to measure the effectiveness of female politicians in the fundraising or legislative games. The political parties don’t release figures based on who or how donations are collected, and most legislation winding through the Commons comes from the government, not just one MP.
Next month, Victoria Budson, executive director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University, is coming to Ottawa to help do a weekend of intense training for would-be female politicians. It’s a debut event for Carleton University’s new Centre for Women in Politics and Public Leadership, co-hosted by Equal Voice, the national organization devoted to improving women’s numbers in politics.
Budson says she wouldn’t be surprised to find that Canadian women politicians are also high achievers, relative to the men in the business. “If you’re in a society — as in, most societies around the globe — where people have a bias that women are less good at politics than men, then they have to overcome that bias to get elected,” she says, “which means that women who do overcome this bias are not equivalent to their male counterparts. The bar is higher.”
Budson adds that women, by and large, are constantly asking themselves whether they’re good enough to be in politics, which means they tend to make higher demands on themselves.
Equal Voice’s executive director, Nancy Peckford, offers similar, anecdotal evidence. Female politicians, from her experience, have usually plunged into politics to get something done in particular, usually on the policy front.
“Women make huge sacrifices to be there, in terms of family,” says Peckford, stressing men also make these sacrifices, but family issues are repeatedly cited as the top obstacles to women’s willingness to go into politics. “I don’t think they want to waste any time once they’re in politics.”
Some Canadian numbers that help paint the picture of women’s achievement or, at least, progress to date, as well as their challenges:
• Women make up only 22 per cent of the House of Commons, but they account for a larger share of membership in cabinet (26 per cent) and in the Senate (35 per cent). The obvious, if sobering, conclusion is that female Canadian politicians need the boost of a prime minister’s appointment to improve their clout in Parliament. Former prime minister Jean Chrétien made that a goal in the Senate while he was doing the appointing to the red chamber, and that high percentage of female senators today is still largely a result of his legacy.
• In terms of Commons committee chairs in the current Parliament, women’s numbers are particularly dismal. Only three women serve at the top of committees, where, it’s often said, the real work of Parliament is done.
• In terms of electability, Canada’s female politicians are having mixed but modestly incremental success. For the past several elections, roughly 15 per cent of the women who ran for office ended up winning. In the 1970s and 1980s, that figure was closer to six per cent.
• And when the going gets tough, how do Canadian women hold up? In the last election, 42 ridings came down to a tight, two-way fight, with less than 5 percentage points between the first- and second-place finishers. Fully half of those races in 2008 featured female candidates — 10 emerged as winners, 13 as losers. Some of those 2008 winners include Fisheries Minister Gail Shea and Newfoundland Liberal MP Siobhan Coady, seen as one of the brightest rookies in the current Parliament.
The high female presence in those tight races would also seem to indicate a certain tenacious streak among Canadian female politicians. And the fact that roughly half of them beat out male contenders for the jobs shows that Whitton may also have been correct in the second part of that quote about women needing to be twice as good as men.
“Luckily, this is not difficult,” she said.
Women make huge sacrifices to (enter politics) in terms of family. I don’t think they want to waste any time once they’re in politics.
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