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).
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
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.