A ‘glass cliff’ may threaten UCP women running for leader

This column is an opinion by Lisa Young, a University of Calgary political scientist. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Looking at the growing list of candidates for the United Conservative Party leadership, it’s tempting to conclude that barriers to women and people of colour in Alberta politics are a thing of the past. Of the eight declared candidates, four are women (with another who may join the race soon). And two of those women are members of the South Asian community.

While it’s encouraging to see this diversity, particularly in a government with few prominent women insiders, some caution is called for.

While the “glass ceiling” for women in Alberta politics may well have cracked, there are many reasons to think that the party’s leadership is nothing but an increasingly crowded glass cliff.

That’s a term coined by Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslem, who were writing about why British companies that had appointed women to their boards tended to perform worse than those that hadn’t. The answer, they found, was that companies that were already performing worse appointed women to their boards. These female board members were recruited to the “glass cliff.”

We are familiar with this pattern in Canadian politics. Canada’s first female premier was Rita Johnston, who won the leadership of the B.C. Social Credit party in 1991 when Bill Vander Zalm stepped down from the leadership of his scandal-plagued government. She went on to lose the next election.

Kim Campbell became Canada’s first woman prime minister when she replaced Brian Mulroney in June 1993, but her party lost power months later. (Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)

Canada’s first woman prime minister, Kim Campbell, became leader of the Progressive Conservative Party in 1993, just as it was facing existential threats from the new Reform Party and Bloc Québécois.

She went on to lose the 1993 election in spectacular fashion. And right now Heather Stefanson, who became Manitoba premier after winning her party’s leadership, appears to be headed for defeat next year.

Like the women appointed to boards of poorly-performing companies, Johnston and Campbell stepped into their roles when the situation was already dire. And then took the blame for the seemingly inevitable collapse.

It would be a mistake to think of this as a conspiracy. Parties don’t settle on women or other non-traditional candidates to “take the fall.” Rather, it seems they know that what they’re currently doing isn’t working, and decide they need to do things differently. And choosing a woman exemplifies this intention.

Women candidates can play into this narrative. Just as Campbell promised in 1993 she would “do politics differently,” we see the women running for the UCP leadership with similar commitments. 

Leela Aheer will “defeat the machines.” Rajan Sawhney promises “not more of the same.” Rebecca Schulz took aim at the “boy’s club” in cabinet. Coming from outside the government, Danielle Smith has focused less on doing politics differently, and more on “Alberta autonomy.”

Alberta firsts

Are these women doomed to fail? Not necessarily. 

As University of Calgary political scientist Melanee Thomas’s research shows, there are instances of women being selected to lead a party in government and going on to win election. Case in point: Kathleen Wynne’s 2014 election win, moving her Ontario Liberals from a minority to a majority government by offering the party a new image and shifting it to the left.

The current UCP race may fit this model. While the party has suffered significantly at the polls over the past two years, it has rebounded since Jason Kenney offered his resignation.

Rachel Notley has avoided the “glass cliff” that women in politics often face. She’ll contest her third election as NDP leader next spring. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

And Alberta has in many respects led when it comes to electing women. Over the past decade, two of the province’s five premiers — Alison Redford and Rachel Notley — have been women. Same goes for two opposition leaders — Smith, from the Wildrose Party, and Notley.

But the key to leading the UCP to victory in the next provincial election lies in holding on to the party’s conservative rural base while regaining the support of urban voters, particularly women. The most recent Leger poll shows the NDP still leading the UCP among women, 46 per cent to 40, while the UCP has a nine-point lead among men.

Vague commitments to “do politics differently” are unlikely to sway voters. Instead — and this will sound familiar to every woman who has had to outperform to get ahead — the women running for the UCP leadership have to tell party members and then voters exactly what they would do differently on the key issues of health care delivery, the provincial school curriculum and economic diversification.

And they need to be very clear about how they would avoid the kind of exclusionary approach to government that the UCP has offered over the past three years. All while keeping the conservative wing of the party in the fold.

After all that, whoever wins the UCP race will face one of Canada’s most formidable female politicians — Rachel Notley.

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