Helping journalists, producers and conference planners find the female guests, speakers and expert sources they need.

More women won’t make our politics sweeter

The Calgary Herald by Melanee Thomas 10 October 2012

A funny thing happened after the recent meeting between Alberta Premier Alison Redford and B.C. Premier Christy Clark. A common headline for news accounts about the meeting reported it was “short but not sweet.”

A number of my colleagues commented, “I thought women were supposed to be nicer and more co-operative in politics.

This kind of commentary misses the point about women and politics.

The idea that a contentious, adversarial process can be made “sweet” or “nice” simply by increasing the number of women involved at best misrepresents a great deal of research examining gender and politics. At worst, this interpretation relies on tired stereotypes and tropes about women.

Certainly, scholars contend that women do politics differently than men. It does not follow, however, that this necessarily involves being nicer, more co-operative, or nurturing.

When I think about how women do politics differently than men, three studies come to mind. The first study, published in 1994 in the American Political Science Review, concludes that women and men behave differently as policy committee chairs. Men interrupt to give their own opinion; women interrupt to ensure the process is fair. Interestingly, some men become more hostile as the proportion of women on a committee increases.

The second study, published in 2010 in Political Behavior, finds that when men are paired with each other to allocate money to groups, they are more concerned with “winning” and “beating the other team” than with their own ideas about how to best distribute the cash. This is reversed when men are paired with women.

The third study, published in the American Political Science Review earlier this year, finds that women and men tend to have equal voice and authority in deliberative, political bodies when there are a) few women, but unanimous decision rules, or b) many women, and majority decision rules. The study’s authors conclude that institutional procedures and design can effectively mitigate inequality in politics.

Note how none of these studies cite how women can change politics because they are nice, co-operative or sweet. Note how research shows that women’s presence in politics can change the behaviour of men, at times through increasingly hostile reactions. Note how scholars suggest that increasing the number of women in politics may lead to different policy outcomes, because women do some, but not all, aspects of politics differently than men.

How might women change politics in Canada? Adversarialism and opposition are built into our political process. This probably won’t change by increasing the number of women in the process, and it’s not clear to me that it should.

What is clear to me, though, is that two premiers held a publicized, bilateral, arguably spurious meeting designed to distract the B.C. electorate from other issues that may cost Clark the 2013 election. Though the content of the meeting was not new, it is worth pointing out that Clark and Redford appear to agree on two very contentious issues related to the Enbridge pipeline — the environment and First Nation’s rights. I wouldn’t say that these premiers arrived at this agreement because they are women. I would say, though, this part of the story is lost when gender stereotypes are used to frame this meeting as “frosty” and “not sweet.”

It is also clear that Clark and Redford’s disagreement on royalties is hardly as contentious or adversarial as other political quarrels in Canada’s recent political past. Danny Williams’ famous “ABC” campaign against Stephen Harper’s Conservatives was openly hostile. By comparison, Clark and Redford are engaging in a discussion that is both as public as, and more constructive than, the Williams-Harper spat.

Canadians shouldn’t think of women in politics like a spoonful of sugar in their morning coffee: adding more won’t make politics any sweeter. Instead, we should develop realistic expectations about how the political process might change if more women were involved.

Melanee Thomas is an assistant professor in the department of political science at the University of Calgary.