Inequality Within Cabinet: Not Just Obama’s Problem | By Erica Woolf

In the aftermath of the elections in the US, and Obama’s victory, both the media and politically-minded individuals are eagerly awaiting confirmations on who will be appointed to the top security and Cabinet positions within the US government. Amidst the predictions from multiple media outlets, criticism over the apparent lack of diversity in Obama’s nominee line-up has been making headlines. Specifically, the nominations thus far have exclude any potential female candidates for the positions of Secretary of State, Defense and Treasury, among others. While it is indeed significant that such an issue has garnered support for, and drawn attention to, equality within government, I believe this issue is not unique to the US alone. In fact, this issue has long been prominent within the Canadian government, yet has drawn minimal attention or criticism. Therefore, I believe it is first necessary, and perhaps the perfect timing, to become conscious of the inequality that plagues our own Cabinet.

While the representation of women in the Canadian government has been significantly and steadily increasing, I believe the analysis of representation should continue to investigate the roles women fill within government once elected. Therefore by following the women through their legislative careers, it has also become clear that the number of women appointed to Federal Cabinet has also been on the rise, although this is still a fairly recent phenomenon. While this is encouraging, a further look into the portfolios these women are assigned shows a troubling trend – women in the Canadian Federal Cabinet have largely been excluded from the three most influential Cabinet positions: those of Justice, Finance and Foreign Affairs. Perhaps Obama and Harper have something to talk about.

Obama’s responses to the criticisms of the lack of diversity within his nominees has been predictable: that he is simply seeking the best candidate for the position (and they all happen to be white males). I however cannot help but think there may be something more to it. If ever there was a gendered division of labour to be found within Cabinet, I believe that the male-dominated positions of Justice, Finance and Foreign Affairs (and conversely Secretary of State, Treasury and Defense in the US) are where it is most prominent. For example, in Canada and since Confederation, the position of Minister of Justice has only been held twice by a woman, Kim Campbell and Anne McLellan. The position of Minister of Finance has never been held by a woman. Further, since its creation in 1995, the Department of Foreign Affairs has never been led by a woman. While subsequent Canadian Prime Ministers can hold firm to the excuse that the men were simply were better-suited for the positions in all instances, I think along with Obama, they need to ask themselves why, and which (if any) preconceived notions of women’s ability to lead they were attaching to these judgements.

While I am thankful that this inequality has finally been noticed and questioned in the United States, I think it is equally as important to be looking at our own Canadian Cabinet demographics while we criticize those of the States. I believe a quote from Kim Campbell herself best sums up the dilemma of women’s exclusion from the highest and most influential cabinet positions:

“Perceptions of leadership can change when women occupy high profile leadership positions. In other words, if women are never in certain roles, then we think it’s almost unnatural for them to be in those roles. That’s why in most cultures leadership is gendered masculine. And the only way to change that is when people, particularly enlightened male leaders, use their positions to put women in these portfolios and give them these opportunities….”

Therefore, while many factors may account for why an increase in the number of women appointed to Cabinet has not resulted in an increased number of female ministers of Justice, Foreign Affairs and Finance, it is indeed clear that this discrepancy has not gone unnoticed.

CC photograph courtesy of “canada.2020” on Flickr.

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