Editorial: Why are so few women in politics?

Why are there so few women in politics? I think the wrong answer is “well, women don’t care about politics.” I think women are quite political. So why does this gender gap exist?

Last year I took a fourth-year politics course titled “Contemporary Canadian Problems.” On the last day, the professor asked the class how the course could be improved. I knew exactly what should be improved: not once were problems women face mentioned. I got very nervous because I was the only girl in the course. It took a lot of courage, but I spoke up.

The biggest guy in the room shot a deep, loud “ha!” at me and the rest of the room laughed. The professor sat back and didn’t do or say anything. I was mortified. None of them probably remember this moment, but it’s stained in my memory, and I think I would be naive to say that it hasn’t affected my participation in future classes.

In a documentary I recently watched at the ReFrame Film Festival called Status Quo? The Unfinished Business of Feminism in Canada (review here), there was a clip that was shockingly similar to my situation. A woman from the NDP brought up the issue of domestic violence of women and the entire House of Commons erupted in laughter for an extended period of time.

She kept saying something along the lines of, “Mr. Speaker, this is not a laughing matter” repeatedly and it was quite horrifying.

These are the kinds of moments that reinforce women’s apprehension to politics. Politics is quite exclusionary to women, but it is not just overt moments like this that affect us. In fact, I think we are more affected by the subtleties.

I’m a politics and philosophy major and if there’s one thing I’ve noticed across the board, it is that men participate in class far more than women.

Not only do more men participate, but they also talk for longer periods of time.

A quick Google search tells me that I’m not the only one to notice this and there are several academic articles about this issue. I will admit right now that this piece is not informed by any of these readings and is purely from my personal perspective as a female student in these particular disciplines.

I was involved with a great Women in Politics event this past weekend and when one of my fellow colleagues answered the question, “What barriers do you perceive that you would face if you were to get involved in politics?” she mentioned that women are targets for inappropriate and/or unwarranted scrutiny, belittlement and dismissal. She, like many other women, feels quite vulnerable. These ideas do not come out of nowhere. They are nurtured in the dynamics we face in our everyday lives.

Places that should be developing women’s skills, such as the classroom or the Internet, are actually perpetuating these barriers and fears, and women internalize these dynamics. The atmospheres in our classrooms and the ways in which discussion takes place need to change.

I think ultimately the root of the problem comes from (sexist) differences in the socialization of boys and girls. However, university classrooms should not continue to perpetuate these differences; they should be levelling the playing field and making sure students are receiving the same education and skills, regardless of their gender.

Ultimately, we must pressure professors to be aware of these dynamics and conscious of the ways they conduct discussion on their courses. It should be their job to create a classroom atmosphere that facilitates the participation of everyone and moderate discussions with gender in mind. Men should also be aware of the way they are conducting themselves because sometimes discussion becomes overly combative.

The atmosphere online is worse. Even our favourite websites such as Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter are not safe. We are targeted as women in various ways. We receive lewd messages, our opinions are disregarded, made fun of, or attacked, misogynistic comments dominate threads, and all kinds of memes are made about us (Scumbag Girlfriend, Good Girl Gina, Overly Attached Girlfriend, Fat Girl, and First World Problems is so gendered that a Male First World Problems meme was created). Things have gotten so bad that men are now being taken to court for the online threats they direct at women.

If women cannot speak without being targeted or attacked, how can we possibly break into the world of politics? More importantly, why would we? Of course less women are interested in participating in politics!

About Sara Ostrowska 34 Articles
Sara has been editor for Volume 47 (2012-2013) and Volume 48. She is a fourth year Philosophy and Political Studies undergrad. Her main interests are Canadian politics, and issues of law, justice and rights, feminism, and ethics. She is also a programmer on Trent Radio. You can follow her on twitter here!