Rachel Notley is just the latest female premier to fail to win a second mandate. What’s going on?

Rachel Notley is just the latest female premier to fail to win a second mandate. What’s going on?
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In Canadian political history, there have only been 11 female premiers and just one has gone on to win a second mandate — which didn’t last long.

(And four provinces — New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan — have never had a female leader.)

Rachel Notley is the most recent provincial leader to fail to secure a second mandate from the electorate, with her loss Tuesday to Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party in Alberta.

Given that female premiers are so rare, and their re-election record so poor, the question arises whether a politicians’ gender plays a role in their success or failure.

Melanee Thomas, a professor at the University of Calgary, has studied whether female premiers tend to fare poorly in subsequent elections because they are more likely to be chosen as “sacrificial lambs” to lead parties in crisis.

She found that less than half of female premiers could be said to have led parties in crisis. Only Pauline Marois’ PQ minority and Rita Johnston’s short-lived Social Credit government in B.C. truly fit the bill, though she notes Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal party was in decline. That means the “sacrificial lamb” theory couldn’t fully explain the poor electoral results of female premiers across the board.

“I really wanted to push back against this narrative that women weren’t doing well because they gained power in parties that weren’t doing well,” Thomas said.

For example, Rachel Notley’s rise to power was fairly traditional, Thomas found, so Tuesday’s election result in Alberta is leading her to think more about what other factors impact how women are viewed in politics.

Any NDP leader would have struggled in an Albertan election focused on the economy, Thomas said, but the economy is also generally stereotyped as a masculine subject. So women might have a disadvantage in elections that revolve around jobs, Thomas argued, as they tend to be seen as more credible on subjects thought of as more feminine, like health care or education.

These “quick stereotypes” may not always be the decisive factor, Thomas said, but they are an important lens through which people interpret politicians. At the same time, she cautioned, with so few data points — only 11 premiers to compare to one another — it’s hard to disentangle what factors were most decisively at play in any one election.

“In this particular context, anybody who had been governing Alberta between 2015 and now was not dealt a great hand,” Thomas said.

Another factor that might help explain the general lack of women in positions of power is the trend in recent years of personal threats or harassment. Notley, Kathleen Wynne and Alison Redford were all the subjects of serious threats during their time in power.

“Being a woman in public, particularly in politics, invites a lot of misogyny,” she said, which can discourage others from climbing the ranks.

There is also some research, according to Sylvia Bashevkin, a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto, that shows people become less comfortable with women as they reach more senior roles.

“People might be okay with women as school trustees or city councillors, or even MPs or MPPs,” she said, but could be more wary of women who are in higher, executive roles.

Whether or not the issue of gender was decisive for the latest female premier to lose her job, “Notley’s defeat certainly trains a spotlight on what are the opportunities for women in politics and the difficulties they face,” Bashevkin said.

“The fact that we have no woman premiers and we have not had a woman prime minister since 1993, opens up the question of the general diversity of the general population and the relative lack of diversity in the political leadership,” she continued. From a period earlier this decade when most Canadians lived under female premierships, now none do. This will have a significant impact on the policy conversation, Bashevkin argued.

At the same time, she said, Notley’s defeat could have a galvanizing effect.

“One can argue that the absence of any women as first ministers can spur a huge amount of activism,” she said.

Those Canadians worried about having a diverse set of leaders, Bashekvin predicted, might emphasize that issue in the coming federal election.


Here’s a brief run-down of the political careers of the 10 female premiers that came before Notley:

Rita Johnson: April 1991-November 1991

Social Credit, British Columbia

Nellie Cournoyea, pictured after her premiership, when she served as chair and CEO of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation. Ted Rhodes/Calgary Herald

Nellie Cournoyea: 1991-1995

Consensus Government, Northwest Territories

Cournoyea was elected by her fellow MLAs and served four years as premier in the Northwest Territories, but chose not to run for re-election to the legislature.
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