“Because it’s 2015” may have been one small comment for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as he and his new cabinet were sworn into office. But it may well prove to be one giant leap for womankind in 2016.
That’s because his pithy remark to explain why he had just sworn in Canada’s first gender parity cabinet set new expectations that should land women more prominent roles in everything from governments to corporations to sports organizations starting in the new year.
Just as important, it could have far-reaching effects beyond power and politics. His words and actions publicly validated women — and that could be a game-changer on issues as wide-ranging as sexual assault, where women are often afraid to come forward to complain because they feel they won’t be believed.
With one act Trudeau reset the dial on issues that feminist organizations have been fighting to gain traction on for eons — and mostly failing. The proportion of women on boards of directors and in Parliament, for example, has barely budged over the decades. And fewer than one in 10 sexual assault victims report the crime to police.
But the world-wide attention Trudeau’s remark and act drew to the issue of equality of women, in general, has the potential of changing that dramatically. His gender parity cabinet and his comment on why he did it made considering women anything less than equal, strong, capable and believable seem anachronistic.
As Spencer Lanthier of the 30% Club, which advocates naming more women to boards of directors worldwide, put it, Trudeau hammered “a silver stake into the heart of the argument” that “there is a choice to be made between merit (i.e. qualified candidates) on one hand and women on the other. The argument that they are mutually exclusive objectives just doesn’t hold water.”
And as Trudeau’s comments trended on Twitter, few in power could have missed his influential message that made it sexy to be progressive. Tweeted one: “The sexiest thing about Justin Trudeau is his cabinet’s gender parity.”
It was a widely shared view. News organizations ranging from the New York Times to Newsweek, Slate, and the Telegraph of London — as well as swooning celebrities such as Emma Watson of Harry Potter fame — were instantly tweeting about it, giving his views an audience of millions around the world within hours.
Take, for example, the longstanding battle to get more women elected to public office. Despite the efforts of groups like Equal Voice, which fight to get more women elected, they hold only 26 per cent of seats in the House of Commons. That’s short of the 30-per-cent threshold that the United Nations says leads to a shift in policy and practice in government. (Trudeau’s move put Canada on the map as one of only five countries in the world with gender-parity cabinets.)
Worse, women hold only 20 per cent of the seats on boards of directors in Canada despite the efforts of organizations such as Catalyst Canada and the 30% Club, even though studies indicate that companies with a higher percentage of women at the top enjoy increased profits, accountability and transparency.
But that could shift considerably, as Trudeau’s act won’t simply prod men to place women into positions of power, argues Nancy Peckford of Equal Voice. It will also inspire more ambitious and talented women to seek it out.
One area where it may be most challenging is the world of sports, “the last place where women are trusted to be involved,” says Karin Lofstrom, executive director of the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity (CAAWS). Still, Trudeau sent out a message by naming Carla Qualtrough as his Minister of Sport, she notes. (Qualtrough is only the second woman to hold that position, and the previous one was Iona Campagnolo way back in 1976.) Lofstrom hopes the appointment will inspire sporting associations to place women on their own boards.
Trudeau’s act of naming a cabinet with equal numbers of men and women will make it more difficult for anyone to argue that they can’t find qualified candidates, agrees Beatrix Dart, executive director of the Rotman School of Business’s Initiative for Women in Business. Trudeau’s act, she says, signaled “that qualified women are available and ready to serve.”
Indeed, it isn’t talented women who are in short supply. It’s the demand for them that has been lacking, points out Alex Johnston, executive director of Catalyst Canada.
But Trudeau’s move made it clear that can change overnight – if the will is there.
More to the point, now that Trudeau has named a gender-parity cabinet, it will be difficult for any future leader to go back on that – or for corporate bosses to argue that it can’t be done. “It sets a precedent and it creates expectations,” notes Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant, an associate professor at Queen’s University who has written on gender issues.
In the end, Trudeau’s “2015” could be a whole new beginning for women in 2016.