Glass ceilings, cliffs, and the wrong side of history

Undoubtedly, the vast majority of you don’t pay attention to Canadian provincial politics. To be quite honest with you, I don’t either (outside of a bit of attention paid to my own province, mostly by accident). However, this past Saturday my non-provincial-politics-watching streak was broken by the occasion of the Ontario Liberal leadership convention coming to a close. Without wanting to go too far into the history, the former premier (a position equivalent to a governor in the United States) resigned quite suddenly in the midst of a number of political crises. The convention on Saturday was the result of a democratic process internal to the party to select his successor, and the presumptive premier of the largest province in the country.

In a move that may have surprised a number of people, the winner of the election, on the third ballot, was Kathleen Wynne, an experienced politician and member of the provincial cabinet. After a second round in which Ms. Wynne was the front-runner alongside Sandra Pupatello. Two other candidates trailed, but with enough delegates to sway the final voting in either direction. They both chose to endorse Wynne, and brought a large percentage of their delegates along with them, cementing Ms. Wynne’s appointment by a final vote split of 57% to 43%.

If you care to do so, you can read some of my initial reactions to the outcome as a Storify log. What I want to do in this piece (and likely in a subsequent one) is to explore a few of the statements I heard in the wake of the announcement.

“The glass ceiling is shattered!”

Ms. Wynne joins four (and not three, as I mistakenly claimed on Twitter) heads of provincial government across the country. Alberta, Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, and my own province of British Columbia also have women at the head of government. This is radically unprecedented within the context of Canadian history – one way of slicing this particular pie is to note that the majority of Canadians live in provinces run by women. Ms. Wynne is the first female premier of Ontario, which is home to 1/3 of the country’s population – this is no small appointment (and one that was made, I wish to reiterate, over a second-place finisher who was also a woman).

The cause for celebration is compounded somewhat by the fact that Ms. Wynne is openly gay*, and acknowledged her spouse Jane in her acceptance speech. As a Twitter-friend remarked, like it or not, gay marriage is a fixture of Canadian life. It is a momentous occasion that is certainly a symptom of a markedly progressive political climate, and something that I am more than a little positive about.

That being said, it is perhaps worth keeping in mind that the only thing we can really say about Ms. Wynne’s selection is that being a woman and being gay are no longer disqualifying factors for high office. In terms of recognizing the progress that Canadian society has made, this is good news. However, in terms of achieving equality for women and for gay people (to characteristically say nothing of trans people and their separate-but-related struggle), the presence of a single office-holder is not, perhaps, anything more than an important first step.

Kathleen Wynne and the “glass cliff”

It cannot, and should not be ignored that Kathleen Wynne was elected by about 1200 members of the Ontario Liberal Party. She was not, in the conventional sense, ‘elected into office’. Without wanting to take too much away from her momentous triumph, it remains to be seen whether Ontario actually is progressive enough to elect Ms. Wynne. Her re-election chances are damaged to a considerable extent by the fact that her predecessor left in disgrace, heavily damaging the popularity of the party she now leads.

Canadian journalist Dan Gardner notes that this is a familiar pattern in Canadian politics – women gaining prominent positions as captains of ships that were sunk by the men preceding them. He quotes researchers who call this effect ‘the glass cliff’:

Psychologists Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam had a close look at the Times’ exposé and discovered something curious: Corporations that appointed women to their boards “experienced consistently poorer performance in the five months preceding the appointment.” So the corporations didn’t struggle because they put women in leadership roles. They put women in leadership roles because they were struggling.

Ryan and Haslam called this the “glass cliff”: Only when an organization’s situation is precarious are women given leadership, which ensures that women in charge often land with a thud.

It would be a real shame if Ms. Wynne’s success was only a precursor to her becoming the scapegoat for the loss that her party is extremely likely to face in the next election. The Onion noted this phenomenon in their now-immortal headline “Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job“. While I have generally positive hopes for her (knowing very little about her policy goals or her record as a politician), I can’t help but cynically expect her to become a footnote rather than a chapter heading in the record of Canadian history.

“I look forward to the day when that won’t matter”

A number of people also expressed the sentiment that they would rather live in a world where a story about a gay woman elected to high office wouldn’t be a big deal at all. Interpreted as generously as possible, I am inclined to say that I feel that way as well – that it would be better if all that was newsworthy about a political appointment was whether or not the selected person was competent at their job.

But the cynic in me couldn’t help but think that there’s a certain amount of “sex and sexuality shouldn’t matter wrapped up in that statement, and I reject that. I think that people bring their experiences to their job, they bring their identity to their job, and they bring their personality to their job. Ms. Wynne is a gay woman who lived through a time when it was decidedly not okay to be gay, and through a time when women were necessarily precluded from positions of power. The world that she lives in now is markedly different than the one she grew up in. I can’t see how that wouldn’t inform her judgment and her priorities. And I think it’s a good thing – compassion and empathy for people who are struggling are going to be readily available to her in a way that they wouldn’t be for a straight man (not that straight men can’t be empathetic, but they (we) have a different back story). The day when sex and sexuality don’t matter is, in my mind, still a very far-off one, because we still live in a world where they matter to today’s kids.

There’s also an element of inevitability to the third sentiment that I find personally annoying, and that I will explore a bit more this afternoon. All in all though, this is a good news story and I’m glad to see Ontario turn this particular corner.

Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!

*There was some sagacious snickering over the phrase “openly gay premier”, as people wondered if there had ever been a closeted premier. My understanding is that Ms. Wynne has not shied away from discussion her sexuality.


  1. says

    The first thing that struck me was how exactly this reflected the situation in Australian politics – Anna Bligh was chosen as the premier of Queensland after the previous premier was well-and-truly on the nose (and lost badly in the following election), and Julia Gillard was made prime minister when the Rudd government dropped to record lows in the polls (on the other hand, Gillard then managed to salvage a win out of the next election, and is actually rising the polls in spite of the media being openly hostile to not only her government but also to reality in general).

    I hadn’t heard about the glass cliff research, but it is rather shocking how widespread this sort of thing is.

  2. says

    Kim Campbell was in exactly the same situation, come to think of it. I remember being both excited that Canada actually had a female PM, and disappointed that she wasn’t “really elected.” I can’t help but feel there’s some unconscious sexism going on there—though I’m not sure if it’s “well, we’re already screwed so she can’t mess things up any more” or a feeling that an otherwise-competent woman wouldn’t be able to win an election—but is acceptable when an election isn’t at hand, or quite what. The effect is to put a LOT of female leaders in positions where failure is almost certain, regardless of the intentions.

  3. says

    I hadn’t thought of the glass cliff concept before, but I think the election of Kim Campbell as leader of the PC party following their complete collapse after Mulroney’s stint as PM is a pefect example. On PEI when our last PC premier (Pat Binns) resigned after a complete rout in a provincial election, leadership reins passed to a women (Olive Crane) who was left in charge of a party in complete disarray.

    On the closeted gay premier comment, it was generally accepted that one previous PEI premier was gay, although that was never actually acknowledged by the individual.

  4. says

    We could argue that Alberta’s Alison Redford and even more so BC’s Christy Clark were given sinking ships too. Redford pulled her team together to defeat her challenger (who was a woman to be fair), while Clark seems doomed without a miracle. One thing I should note though is that Wynne has faced the electorate as a local candidate and won. She hasn’t had to take on the entire province yet, but its not true to say she’s unelected. Also, one of her opposition leaders, Andrea Horwath of the Ontario NDP, is a woman who has been quite successful in building her party. The next Ontario election will be pretty interesting.

  5. says

    We could argue that Alberta’s Alison Redford and even more so BC’s Christy Clark were given sinking ships too

    Dan Gardner specifically mentions both of them in his piece. He said on Twitter that he considers Redford an ‘outlier’ (in that she doesn’t fit the trend). I would imagine that generally speaking it is getting better organically for women on the national stage – that it is less the case that women are seen as only suitable when things are going to shit. However, the effect is an interesting one, and one that I think should be kept in mind to temper our sunny-eyed optimism.


  6. mildlymagnificent says

    Remember, in Australia, there were Carmen Lawrence in WA and Joan Kirner in Victoria who were “given” the Premier’s post when support collapsed for their predecessors. These jobs were poisoned chalices. They had little to no chance of being elected because their parties were unelectable at the time.

  7. Ysanne says

    Add Angela Merkel to the list of these women — she was elected chairperson of her party in the midst of a huge mess involving big undeclared donations and other not-quite-clean money, basically as a pawn to sacrifice soon after. We all know how that turned out…

  8. wondering says

    Christy Clark is not the first female BC premier to get the office when a male premier decided to jump ship. Remember Rita Johnson? She got the throne when Vander Zalm and the So Cred party went up in flames.

    I’m glad to know there’s a name for this phenomenon – people have been remarking cynically on it for some time.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *