‘Glass cliff’ could threaten UCP women who run for leadership

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This column is the opinion of Lisa Young, a political scientist at the University of Calgary. For more information on CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Looking at the growing list of candidates for the leadership of the United Conservative Party, it is tempting to conclude that barriers to women and people of color in Alberta politics are a thing of the past. Of the eight declared candidates, four are women (with another one who may soon join the race). And two of those women are members of the South Asian community.

While it is encouraging to see this diversity, especially in a government with few prominent women, some caution is in order.

While the “glass ceiling” for women in Alberta politics may have cracked, there are many reasons to believe that party leadership is just another cliff of glass. more crowded.

It’s a term coined by Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslem, who wrote about why UK companies that appointed women to their boards tended to perform worse than those that did not. The answer, they found, was that companies that were already performing worse were appointing women to their boards. These female board members were recruited on the “glass cliff”.

We know this pattern in Canadian politics. Canada’s first female prime minister was Rita Johnson, who won the leadership of British Columbia’s Social Credit Party in 1991 when Bill Vander Zalm left the leadership of his scandal-ridden government. She then lost the following elections.

Kim Campbell became Canada’s first female prime minister when she replaced Brian Mulroney in June 1993, but her party lost power months later. (Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)

Canada’s first female prime minister, Kim Campbellbecame leader of the Progressive Conservative Party in 1993, when he faced existential threats from the new Reform Party and the Bloc Québécois.

She then lost the 1993 election dramatically. And right now, Heather Stefanson, who became premier of Manitoba after winning her party leadership, seems to be headed for defeat Next year.

Like women appointed to the boards of underperforming companies, Johnston and Campbell took office when the situation was already dire. And then took the blame for the seemingly inevitable collapse.

It would be a mistake to consider this a conspiracy. Parties are not content with women or other non-traditional candidates to “take the fall”. On the contrary, it seems that they know what they are currently doing is not working and decide that they need to do things differently. And choosing a woman illustrates this intention.

Candidates can play in this story. Just as Campbell promised in 1993 that she would “do politics differently,” we see women running for UCP leadership with similar pledges.

Leela Aheer will “defeat the machines”. Rajan Sawney promises “no more of the same.” Rebecca Schulz targeted the firm’s “boy’s club”. Coming from outside government, Danielle Smith focused less on how to do politics and more on “self-government for Alberta”.

Alberta firsts

Are these women doomed? Not necessarily.

As a political scientist from the University of Calgary Melanee Thomas’ research shows, there are cases where women are chosen to lead a party in government and win elections. Example: Kathleen Wynne’s election victory in 2014, moving her Ontario Liberals from a minority government to a majority government by giving the party a new image and moving it to the left.

The current UCP race can fit this model. While the party has suffered badly at the polls over the past two years, it has rebounded since Jason Kenney offered to resign.

Rachel Notley avoided the “glass cliff” that women in politics often face. She will contest her third election to lead the NDP next spring. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

And Alberta is in many ways ahead when it comes to electing women. In the past decade, two of the province’s five premiers — Alison Redford and Rachel Notley — have been women. The same goes for two opposition leaders – Smith, of the Wildrose party, and Notley.

But the key to leading the UCP to victory in the upcoming provincial elections lies in maintaining the party’s conservative rural base while winning back the support of urban voters, especially women. The most recent Light Poll shows that the NDP still leads the UCP among women, 46% to 40, while the UCP has a nine-point lead among men.

Vague commitments to “do politics differently” are unlikely to sway voters. Instead – and this will sound familiar to any woman who has had to go above and beyond to get ahead – women running for UCP leadership must tell party members, and then voters, exactly what they would do differently on the key issues of health care delivery, provincial school curricula and economic diversification.

And they need to be very clear about how they would avoid the kind of government exclusionary approach that the UCP has been proposing over the past three years. While keeping the conservative wing of the party in the fold.

After all that, whoever wins the UCP race will go up against one of Canada’s most fearsome female politicians – Rachel Notley.


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