Return to: Search Page or to: Table of Contents Vol. 15, issue 6

Brenda O'Neill and David K. Stewart, "Gender and Political Party Leadership in Canada," Party Politics, 15 (November 2009), 737-757. [Available at]

First paragraph:
The experience of women in political parties has generated significant academic attention and much of this research concludes that in spite of women's gains the political arena remains one characterized by a 'masculinized ethos' and 'jobs for the boys' (Lawless and Fox, 2005; Mckay, 2004). With respect to party leadership, attention to gender has been much more limited. Early research by Robert Putnam (1976) revealed the 'law of increasing disproportion', whereby the percentage of women holding party positions declined as the importance of positions increased. Sylvia Bashevkin referred to the phenomenon as 'the higher, the fewer' (1993). More recent research suggests that women have made participatory gains in party organizations; once they have joined, women are as likely as men to partake in a wide range of party activities such as seeking nominations and attending nomination meetings (Young and Cross, 2003). Nonetheless, as Inglehart and Norris note: 'One fundamental problem facing democracies is the continued lack of gender equality in political leadership' (2003: 127). Women continue to be less likely to join political parties than men, much less likely to be an elected parliamentarian and very much less likely to serve as a head of government. Clearly the 'the higher, the fewer' pattern continues (Black and Erickson, 2000; Young and Cross, 2003).

Figures and Tables:
Table 1. Comparing male and female party leaders and leadership races, 1980-2005
Figure 1. Gender of party leader by ideological placement of party
Figure 2. Share of women among party leaders selected by year, 1980-2005
Table 2. Major seat losses by governing parties 1980-2005

Last Paragraph:
Whether the conclusions drawn on the basis of the Canadian case can be applied more broadly depends in part on the context of partisan and electoral politics. With its single-member plurality system and leader-driven campaigns and elections, the success or failure of competitive political parties is often seen to rest largely on the shoulders of the party leader. To that end, Canadian parties may be less willing than those in other systems to 'experiment' by selecting women as their leaders. That Canadian parties on the ideological left, those most likely to elect women as their leaders, also happen to be less likely than parties in the centre or to the right of this spectrum to win elections may not be completely unrelated. Less dependent on context is the general conclusion that gender continues to be a factor that matters within the context of elite partisan politics.

Last updated October 2009