Kate Graham has a PhD in Political Science, and teaches at Western University, Huron University College and King’s University College. She has a decade of government experience, most recently as the Director, Community & Economic Innovation at the City of London. She is a published author, the creator and host of Canada 2020’s No Second Chances podcast, and has led award-winning teams -- but it is Kate’s desire to lead change in Ontario that qualifies her to run (see: kateforleader.ca).
"But is she qualified?"
October 18, 2019 marks the 90th anniversary of the Persons Case: a ruling that the definition of “qualified persons” who could hold office in the Senate did, indeed, include women.
It’s an occasion I find hard to celebrate. I understand the historic significance of the Persons Case — but the idea that less than a century ago, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that 51% of the population were not “qualified persons” and it took an appeal to the British Judicial Committee of the Privy Council to overturn it … well, it hardly feels like cause for celebration.
As a nation, we’ve seen tremendous progress over the past 90 years -- but the representation of women in senior leadership roles has not kept pace.
Women remain underrepresented in leadership roles across most sectors, and in politics. This underrepresentation is even more severe for racialized and Indigenous women.
A woman has served as Prime Minister for just 0.004% of the past 90 years.
Today, all of Canada’s Premiers are men.
Canada has had more than 300 First Ministers (Prime Ministers and Premiers), but only 12 have been women. There are strong patterns when you look at the political fortunes of these women: they tend to rise to power in politically difficult circumstances; they last about half as long as men in the role; and, when they run for re-election, they lose. Canadians have yet to re-elect a female First Minister.
Over the past year, I interviewed the women who have served in Canada’s most senior political role for a project called No Second Chances with Canada 2020. Their experiences, insights and advice were shared in what became a popular podcast series, culminating in a historic gathering of Canada’s female First Ministers in Ottawa in June 2019. The group penned an Open Letter to Canadians with a call to finally address the underrepresentation of women in Canadian politics.
It includes a specific call to women: “put your name on a ballot.” If we want to see more women in senior leadership roles, we need more women to run.
I have recently taken up this challenge. In September 2019, I launched my own provincial leadership campaign. It didn’t take long before that pesky and persistent Persons Case question came up.
“But, is she qualified?”
In Canada, most of the people we have elected as leaders look similar: older, white, straight, affluent men, and often after a career in politics. We have come to believe that being “qualified” to run for office means specific things, because it’s what we have seen over and over and over again. It’s the reason so many women report feeling “unqualified” to run, and why we tend to question the qualifications of women more than we do of men.
It’s a form of unconscious bias that keeps some people in, and some people out.
Here’s the reality: there are no set qualifications to hold public office. It’s not a job landed with a resume, where one needs a specific background or education or experience to apply. What qualifies someone to run for office is a desire to serve people, and a relentless desire to drive positive change.
I want to see more mothers in leadership roles. More people of colour. More Indigenous people. More people with a greater diversity of lived experiences and perspectives, who really understand the challenges and inequalities we face.
If we want to see more women in politics, and a greater diversity of women in politics, we need to see people with a greater diversity of backgrounds run — and win. We need to continue work dating back more than 90 years and routinely challenge the unconscious biases still present in how we define what “qualifies” someone to hold elected office.
On the 90th anniversary of the Persons Case, let us acknowledge this date by supporting women who are running for office. There are incredible women running, across all political parties. Support them. Volunteer. Donate. Send an encouraging note about why you support their candidacy for office -- a reminder that earning support from their fellow Canadians is, in fact, the only “qualification” they need.