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How 'gotcha journalism' intensifies sexism in politics

Aug 29, 2016

 

OTTAWA—On the eve of the 100th anniversary of some women in Canada gaining the federal franchise in 1917, women in Canada are enjoying newfound success and power in politics.

 

Despite the fact that elected women are often held to higher performance standards, endure rampant online bullying, and “everyday sexism” at work, progress is nonetheless discernible. Particularly encouraging was the appointment of a gender-balanced federal cabinet last fall, a first in Canada’s history.

 

Though men still outnumber women in the House of Commons three to one, parties know that strong and successful women are a key to their success. Plus, increasingly, voters—especially women and youth—expect no less.

 

Provincially, premiers Kathleen Wynne, Rachel Notley and Christy Clark lead three of Canada’s most populated provinces and preside over cabinets with the strongest percentages of women. In fact, Premier Notley tipped the gender balance in favour of women in her last cabinet shuffle.

 

Municipally, Canada’s big-city mayors are nearly all men. However, Canadians have long shown they’ll happily elect a woman to lead city council. Three of the mayors in the nation’s capital through five different decades have been women: Charlotte Whitton, Marion Dewar, and Jacqueline Holtzman.

 

Yet, only four of Ottawa’s current municipal councillors are women. What gives?

 

We know that countless women are already playing pivotal leadership roles in their communities, natural stepping stones to public office. Many recognize, too, that success at the local government level is often the confidence builder women need to run provincially and federally.

 

But the job must be sustainable. Relentless social media attacks, an overwhelming workload, and heightened public scrutiny that disproportionately regards the missteps of female politicians as “personal failings” and reflective of fundamental character flaws are some of the reasons women opt to stay away.

 

Last week, national reporters branded the long standing practice of contracting photography for an important international conference by Environment and Climate Change Canada, Catherine McKenna’s department, as a personal “spending scandal.” McKenna barely had time to set up her office before being thrust into one of the world's most important environment conferences in this past decade, for which her participation was organized by her department.

 

Though she had little experience in the area of climate change, Canada was lauded for McKenna’s leadership in helping to set a higher standard for climate change targets the world over. Yet, characterizations of McKenna this week are all about how one of the youngest women ministers in cabinet is preoccupied by “glam shots.” This is a total distortion.

 

In the same period, another one of the federal cabinet’s best performing individuals, Health Minister Jane Philpott, has been vilified for costs incurred by her office so she could work efficiently while visiting the GTA in her capacity as the national champion and fixer of Canada’s public health-care system. Accusations of entitlement and extravagance abounded, as if Minister Philpott, a long time family physician who has worked in some of the most impoverished parts of the globe, got into politics for the apparent luxury of it.

 

While scrutiny of public expenditures by those in public office is standard practice these days, these formidable cabinet ministers should be able to focus on the ambitious objectives of their portfolios without being denigrated by “gotcha” journalism and anonymous internet trolls. The prime minister and voters will rightfully judge their job performances in due course.

 

In University of Toronto professor Sylvia Bashevkin’s book, Women, Power, Politics: The Hidden Story of Canada’s Unfinished Democracy, Bashevkin argues that women in politics are subjected to harsher evaluations by the media and, as a result, end up appearing to “fall short on each and every metric.” The extra scrutiny not only makes life more diffi cult for women in politics, but distracts from their political contributions, capabilities, and opinions.

 

And, yet, we need their staying power. Why? Because the tide of public opinion is increasingly intolerant of such antics. When Premier Notley’s head was figuratively placed as a target for a golf tournament this year, public outrage over this misogynist act forced organizers to quickly apologize.

 

In February, Ottawa Liberal MP Karen McCrimmon suffered the indignity of a vulgar joke shared in front of her by a male colleague in a room of hundreds. The crowd was aghast. McCrimmon, who is a veteran of Afghanistan and the first woman to command an air force squadron, didn’t flinch. This was an opportunity for us all to do better, she said.

 

And do better we must. Canadians want governments that are inclusive, diverse, and responsive so that we, as a whole, get better public policy outcomes. We need to show our daughters and granddaughters that being a female politician isn’t only attainable, it’s desirable because the opportunities to make a meaningful contribution in a respectful environment are enormous.

 

But better awareness of how elected women are 'framed' and portrayed by the media is crucial. Women on all sides in this Parliament are leveraging their incredible talent and commitment to make politics and Parliament a better place.

 

And while they (or their offices) may falter, sloppy, sexist, and excessively negative characterizations of women which serve to diminish the tremendous amount that they bring to the table must end. 

 

Nancy Peckford is the executive director for Equal Voice.

 

A version of this article was published in the Hill Times on August 29th 2016.

 

 

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