Justin Trudeau announced his Cabinet on November 4th and, as promised, it contained “an equal number of women and men.”
This is great news for female politicians and women in general – after all, how can we expect intelligent, politically savvy women to climb the ladder of success without a man giving them preferential treatment?
This isn’t Team Trudeau’s first foray into transparent political pandering disguised as feminist triumph. However, Trudeau’s latest attempt at feminism takes condescension to new heights. Far from being empowering, Trudeau’s gender parity pledge actually does a grave disservice to women in politics.
It should be mentioned, firstly, that gender quotas are a Band-Aid solution that does nothing to solve underlying issues affecting political participation among women. In their International Political Science Review article, “Playing with different cards: Party politics, gender quotas and women’s empowerment,” Tània Verge and Maria de la Fuente argue that quotas do not address the “noncodified but still important rules and norms that may discourage women from being more active in terms of access, presence and agency.” While not totally dismissive of quotas, Verge and de la Fuente cite gender double standards, sexist behaviour, and lack of work-life balance as issues that need to be addressed if women are to be empowered in public life. Appointing fifteen women to cabinet doesn’t suddenly make the political sphere a more hospitable environment for all women.
I suspect that even Justin Trudeau would agree that his parity policy is a symbolic gesture. When he initially announced the plan at a June 17th press conference, he explained, “we know that there is no more important symbol than that of the federal Cabinet.”
But what exactly does this policy symbolize? That women can achieve anything they want – so long as a man helps them? That women are only valuable for their ability to make a statement?
I mean no disrespect to the accomplished women who now form half of Trudeau’s Cabinet, but this feels like tokenism to me.
Consider the presumptuousness of his initial announcement. Trudeau declared, “My Liberal cabinet will have an equal number of women and men” a full four months before the election – before he had any idea what the Liberal caucus would look like come October 19th. He didn’t know which of his female candidates would win their seats, how many female MPs he would have, or what their qualifications would be. This isn’t a gesture of confidence in or respect for his female MPs, but an act of cynical political grandstanding.
If this were truly an altruistic decision made based on the genuine desire to help qualified women advance in politics, Trudeau could have quietly appointed a 50% female cabinet. I’m sure the Liberal caucus has enough qualified female MPs to accomplish this without trouble.
But by making gender parity a stated policy, he cheapens the honour of a Cabinet appointment, denigrates the qualifications of his female Ministers, and makes them vulnerable to sexist attacks and accusations that they didn’t truly earn their positions.
No matter how qualified Trudeau’s Cabinet, no matter how deserving his Ministers, the women he has appointed will have to deal with lingering questions of whether they were chosen solely because of their gender. And I predict that the male MPs who didn’t make Cabinet will be the first to throw those stones.
While I have profound respect for the women who have earned a spot in Cabinet, I don’t believe Justin Trudeau’s selection approach gives any of them the credit they deserve.
Women are as competent as men, and we do not need patriarchal policies to help us climb the ladder. Gender quotas send the message that women are unable to succeed on their own merits. No matter how well-intentioned, perpetuating that doesn’t help anyone.
Originally published in Thee Westerner as “Justin Trudeau’s Gender Parity Pledge is an Insult to Women;” November 5, 2015
My Commitment to Gender Equality in Ottawa – in 25 Seconds. Perf. Justin Trudeau. Facebook. Facebook, 17 June 2015. Web. 18 Nov. 2015. <https://www.facebook.com/JustinPJTrudeau/videos/10153498993780649/>.
Verge, Tània, and Maria De La Fuente. “Playing with Different Cards: Party Politics, Gender Quotas and Women’s Empowerment.” International Political Science Review 35.1 (2014): 67-79. Sage Journals. Web. 18 Nov. 2015. <http://ips.sagepub.com/content/35/1/67.full.pdf+html>.