What do we really think about female politicians?

By Shachi Kurl, Executive Director

July 27, 2016 – As Hillary Clinton takes her official place as the first female presidential nominee in U.S. history, the glass ceiling she put “18 million cracks” into during her 2008 bid for the Democratic nomination will finally be smashed. Depending on how things go in November, she could well make history again as America’s first elected female president.

Many will say it’s about time the United States caught up. Theresa May is now the second female prime minister of the United Kingdom. Her European Union counterpart is German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Canadians went there and did that 23 years ago, under former Progressive Conservative prime minister Kim Campbell; the latest iteration of her party is now led by Rona Ambrose. But let’s not get too smug; Ms. Campbell’s months-long term was followed by 25 years of male PMs.

Maryam Rajavi, Iranian opposition leader talking to Mrs Kim Campbell at the grand annual gathering in Paris in 2015. (Flickr)

Achieving milestones is impressive, but current public perception can better inform where Canadian society really stands when it comes to women and political leadership.

Polling data released this week by the Angus Reid Institute show that 84 per cent of Canadians say men and women make equally good political leaders. Data from Pew Research indicates 75 per cent of Americans said the same in 2014. Similar questions have prompted similar responses in Britain (84 per cent) and Germany (78 per cent) in recent years.

But while most Canadians profess that they, themselves, do not distinguish on gender when it comes to quality of political leadership, just as many suspect that broader society gives men the edge – a telling sign that may reveal more about what we really think, but don’t necessarily want to say out loud.

Further, our data teases some curious trends for the future among those we might look to as standard bearers on this issue: the next generation, specifically, young men.

Despite coming of age at a time of less-institutional gender discrimination while more of their moms than ever worked outside the home, our polling finds that men aged 18 to 34 are more out of step with other age and gender demographics when it comes to women in politics.

Nearly half (47 per cent) of them said the fact that Ms. Clinton is a woman helped her on the road to her nomination. This is well above the national average (35 per cent) – and a view held among younger men noticeably more than among older ones.

Over all, respondents also gave female politicians the advantage over their male counterparts on traits such as “honesty and ethics” and “working to improve quality of life” by margins of nine-to-one and six-to-one, respectively. But younger men are, at most, only half as likely to reflect these views as their elders. Further, they are more than twice as likely as anyone else to give the edge to men on these traits.

So what can we take from this? It’s not surprising to see a gender divide in polling. This divide, however, isn’t driven by older men – whom we might assume to be more “old-fashioned” in their thinking – but by their sons and nephews.

Is it a sign that, while the message we have been giving girls and young women appears to be working for them, young men are feeling marginalized and left behind? Is there a need to tailor messages about female inclusion to boys specifically, or risk a disconnect in their thinking that persists as these younger men grow older?

Perhaps not. The data also shows that nearly half of younger men say they either care deeply about female representation in politics, or say it’s a legitimate issue.

And the highest majorities of respondents who say male and female politicians are equally likely to be honest, to improve lives, or to work out compromises are found among both young men and women, demonstrating a kind of gender blindness that separates them from other age groups.

Optimists could say this is a sign of a generation set to tilt the scales of future political gender representation in a more equitable direction. Pessimists might worry that such gender-blindness could lead to more of the status quo, rather than growth in female political participation.

This Op-Ed originally appeared in the Globe and Mail