Opinion: Journalists Have Been Doing Women Political Candidates an Injustice

Contrary to popular opinion, there’s more than enough evidence to verify that Canada is still in ‘thy son’s command.’ Although 50.3 per cent of the Canadian population is female, women only make up 27.8 per cent of representatives in the House of Commons. With more women in politics than ever, we still have a legislature that is not even close to being proportionally representative of our population. Each election, women politicians hardly have a fighting chance, even if they are the most qualified for the job. The villain that they must defeat in order to reign victorious over a patriarchal democracy? The Canadian news media. 

It is evident that after decades of journalism covering a male-dominated field, Canadian journalists are still adjusting to writing about women in power. Research published by a professor at Queens University shows that female politicians are highly scrutinized in the media, receiving almost double the negative assessments of their political careers, as opposed to men. In a country of 37 million citizens, it is almost impossible for Canadians to personally encounter those they trust to represent them politically. We rely on journalists to taste-test our politicians and report accurately about who they are and what their intentions are. This is journalism’s most important role in our democracy. We need to be presented with information in order to form our own opinions so we can confidently cast a ballot.

The problem presents itself: we cannot form our own opinions, particularly about our female candidates, if they are portrayed and treated differently than our male candidates in the news media. Data presented by Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant from 2463 articles published by the Globe and Mail shows explicit evidence that this hypothesis is true. Within these articles, the careers of women politicians received 107 negative analyses while male politicians only received 56. This is part of the reason why leading political parties are hesitant to nominate female party leaders. They know that female leaders will get more media attention during their federal campaign. More eyes on a female candidate translates to more negative and irrelevant press. It does enough damage to sway even their feminist readers.

We have seen evidence of this process time and time again, reiterated by scholars in gender politics. Over-qualified women, such as former stand-in Prime Minister Kim Campbell, have been scrutinized for not having enough political experience, while their male contenders held inferior positions and were considered excellent candidates for powerful roles. Campbell was chastised for confidently illustrating her political knowledge and experience during debates because it was understood as arrogant. It was a different story for Stephen Harper who demonstrated similar qualities but was viewed as a confident, intellectual leader fit for the prime ministerial role.

Having a proportionate number of women elected into parliament is more than just an issue of equality and representation. Women having an appropriate number of seats at the legislative table is necessary to creating balanced and logical policies. Women politicians, just like male politicians, have insights on political issues and social subjects that make meaningful changes in our legislature. Having more women in politics doesn’t just mean that we’ll have accurate representation, it means that our country will be better and stronger, through female contribution. For decades, journalists have been doing Canada a massive injustice by inadvertently holding women back from the political sphere. 

This goes to say that journalists are not intentionally preventing women in politics from gaining political momentum. One of the issues in dismantling patriarchal systems is having to recognize things like gendered language, which work against the system we need to uproot and critically analyze. In traditionally male-dominated fields, we have gotten used to holding all contenders up to the male model just to make sure they’ll fit in okay. It’s time for the media to portray leaders as who they are, not as who they are compared to their male colleagues.

The future of journalism and democracy lies in the ability of the news media to allow women the chance to be political representatives and leaders. If we want a better and stronger country, we have to see women as competent leaders who do not need to shield their femininity in order to be elected. It is absolutely necessary that journalists think critically of their work before publishing it, questioning how their analyses of female candidates compares to their analyses of male candidates. During the 2019 election, it is time for Canada to look beyond their candidate’s gender identity. It is time for us to uproot a system that has set women politicians up to fail.