Women’s Voices in Canadian Public Life: An Interview with Dr. Heather Nicol
Continuing its celebration of 50 years of Canadian Studies at Trent, the School for the Study of Canada is highlighting the role of women in Canadian public life with a number of prominent women holding public lectures. We spoke with Dr. Heather Nicol, director of the School for the Study of Canada, who shared perspectives on women’s voices in Canadian public life.
Upcoming 50th anniversary lectures include Women in Canadian Politics – How Can We Do Better? on Thursday, March 2, by Senator Donna Dasko, a public policy expert and long-time advocate for women in Canadian politics; and Still We Refuse! – A Conversation on Anti-Black Racism, Police Violence, Feminism and Abolition on Wednesday, March 8 (virtual), by Dr. Beverly Bain, a Black queer feminist, and antiracism, anti-capitalism scholar. Winter term lecturers have also included Canada’s ambassador to Iceland, Jeannette Menzies, and Megan Leslie from the World Wildlife Fund Canada.
We’ve seen some high-profile resignations of women politicians lately; namely Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, and Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland. What do you make of this trend?
I think it's understandable. There is so much accessibility now through social media. Messages are more direct and immediate. To be successful, you have to be connected—and that leaves you open to totally unfiltered comments. I know from my own conversations with women in public life that these kinds of communications can be vicious and personal. There is often gender referencing of some kind, and it can be intimidating. There are death threats, or threats of personal harm. I've talked to enough discouraged women—from local politics all the way up to federal politics—to understand that it's really, really devastating. There’s no culture yet—or perhaps it’s in the process of developing—for recognizing and supporting women in public life managing this kind of abuse.
It’s also a difficult system for women in other ways. For example when women play the traditional role of primary caregivers. We know families should have equal division of labor, but we're not there yet. There are a number of different contributors to these resignations, but I do think the immediacy of personal attacks is a major factor and shows an unpleasant underside to this whole idea of gender equity that hasn't been anticipated.
What needs to change?
I don't think it's women that need to change. Partly it's a historical problem about attitudes towards women. Partly it's a fairly recent problem reflecting polarized politics and a lack of civility that leads to a greater degree of negativity and anger directed towards those in public service and those in public and political life.
I think that we need to take a step back and learn to appreciate more what it is that people in public life do. Because we don't understand the complexity of politics and public service, we don't understand the way to change what is wrong with our political systems. We don't know who to blame when something goes wrong, and we really don’t know what to do to fix it. We need to understand a little bit more about effective activism and how decision making is done and who to direct our conversations to. This kind of misunderstanding can lead to personalized attacks. And then it's up to women to develop a thick skin because of the nature of that personal hatred.
What does it mean to have fewer women's voices in politics?
There's certainly a loss of capacity. And we could talk about the loss of different perspectives and diversity, but I don’t want to essentialize that women and men would think differently about different issues. I think the real problem is that there's a loss of capacity, in that 50% of the population has barriers or will think twice about entering the public service. We really need effective, intelligent folks in the public service. We have a growing women's workforce that's increasingly educated, increasingly taking on high position jobs, increasingly capable, increasingly experienced. So we're losing capacity, we're losing representation, we're losing expertise.
The positive end of this is people are talking about it. We had Tina Namiesniowski, Canada’s Senior Associate Deputy Minister of Employment and Skills Development, here a few weeks ago. And she's a very, very competent woman with decades of expertise. She spoke about the difficulties of public life, about the barriers for women in Canadian Politics—and she’s a ground breaker for raising these issues and talking about it in ways that haven’t been addressed before.
How do you see upcoming Canadian Studies speakers contributing to this conversation?
It will be interesting to hear from Beverly Bain, who has been receiving hate mail because she's talking at Trent. And to get the perspective of Donna Dasko, somebody who's spent quite a while in the federal government and can understand governance at the highest level. I expect they’ll provide insight on what encourages and inspires women to stay, and what has been eroding that capacity of female leadership.
In the first half of these celebrations, we were looking at segments of Canada from an academic and critical perspective, which is extremely important. But right now we're looking at the bigger picture. We want to understand how decision-making works, what makes it successful, what makes it unsuccessful, and understand this from the perspective of women involved in politics and public service.
Posted on March 1, 2023