17 June 2019

Women in elected politics: is it a choice? #nlpoli

The number of women in elected office in Newfoundland and Labrador remains below the numbers one would expect based on changes in society over the past 40 years.  
Why is that? 
Maybe, it's a choice.
Luana Maroja is a biology professor at Williams College, a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts.

Maroja wrote recently in The Atlantic that for most of the decade that she’s taught evolutionary biology and genetics, “the only complaints I got from students were about grades. But that all changed after Donald Trump’s election as president. At that moment, political tensions were running high on our campus. And well-established scientific ideas that I’d been teaching for years suddenly met with stiff ideological resistance.”

The resistance she is getting is not from MAGA-hat wearing Trumpians. On the contrary, the criticism Maroja takes has come from those who would fancy themselves progressives. They reject evidence of the biological basis of some differences among humans based on ideological assumptions. 

When confronted with evidence that contradicts their assumptions, some “students push back against these phenomena not by using scientific arguments, but by employing an a priori moral commitment to equality, anti-racism, and anti-sexism. They resort to denialism to protect themselves from having to confront a worldview they reject—that certain differences between groups may be based partly on biology.” 

An example of the type of evidence to which Maroja pointed was a study published in Psychological Science.  It compared the percentage of women STEM graduates in a country with its Global Gender Gap Index.  Countries with the highest gender equality scores also had the lowest percentage of female graduates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

[Women among STEM graduates versus gender equality index scores for selected countries.  Chart from Psychological Science via The Atlantic.]

The authors noted that there wasn’t an issue of ability.  Typically, outperformed boys in skills like reading across all countries. concluded there was a connection between economic security and STEM in countries like Turkey, Tunisia, and Algeria that weren’t present in Norway, Sweden, or Ireland.

Young women looking for a better economic future pursued subjects more likely to bring them higher salaries and better social status.  In countries with the highest level of social security, women had the greater freedom to “pick whatever career they’d enjoy most and be best at.”


The lack of women candidates in the last provincial election was a significant issue in the early stages of the campaign. Supporters of the New Democratic Party,  which ran candidates in only a fraction of the districts, blamed a supposedly rushed election for the shortage of candidates generally and women in particular.  Equal Voice, a national organization that encourages more women to run for office, also relied on the fictitious snap-election call as an excuse for the low number of women candidates.

But even in that instance, individual choice sometimes played a big role.  Caitlin Urquhart is a lawyer in St. John's.  In an interview during the campaign, Urquhart pointed to hypothetical reasons why someone in her profession might not run. Her choice of words is striking:  
For me, if I was interested, I might have to be in court during parts of the campaign. I may have cases or workloads that I can't shift around. I may have child-care obligations that I'm unable to, on short notice, to rearrange.   
Of course, the election didn't come on short notice and women with demanding careers managed to make arrangements that allowed them to run.  The key point is that Urquhart offered a variety of hypothetical reasons, all of which are legitimate ones for individuals to opt to stay out of politics.

Urquhart offered another reason for not running that was more clearly about personal choice.  "I'm not sure that anyone could pay me enough to do that job. You take a lot of beatings, you know, from the public and obviously also within the House, which … no one wants to work in a toxic workplace."  Politics is a hard job and it isn't for everyone.

What's interesting to note in contrast to the lack of women at the provincial level is the number of women involved in municipal politics.  In 2017,  39% per cent of municipal councils in the province were made up of women. In rural areas, a high proportion of women serve in municipal government.  While the job in small towns is part-time,  the potential for what Urquhart described as a toxic workplace, is not demonstrably less than it might be in provincial politics or municipal politics in St. John's and Corner Brook.

Understanding why men and women run for elected office - or opt not to run - is important for understanding why we have such a variation in political involvement by women at the municipal and provincial level.  So far there seem to be lots of guesses, hypotheses, and more than a bit of  sexism and rationalization. 

What we are short of are facts.

Maybe we should consider that in our society,  many women exercise their right to choose not to enter politics because it doesn't fit their desires.

If that's the case, a whole bunch of people will need to rethink their assumptions.

-srbp-