Women remain underrepresented in economic and finance ministers’ offices, a political sphere that former cabinet staff say continues to be an “old boys’ club” and especially unavailable to women at the senior level.
Long before and after Michele Austin worked as a chief of staff to Conservative minister Rona Ambrose, she noticed women weren’t in finance files.
“Prime ministers, no matter what their party, turn a blind eye to putting women in charge of economic portfolios federally,” she said. “Women’s perspectives on the economy and the bottom line are incredibly important. If you think of who makes purchasing decisions in households, it’s predominantly women, so they need to have a voice at the cabinet table.”
More should be done to recruit women staff and politicians to fill financial roles, she said.
“It’s still a habit to think of finance being a man’s world.”
This is the first of a two-part series looking at staffing of women at senior levels. A Hill Times analysis showed showed 60 per cent of all senior political staff, or 98 of 163 positions, in ministers’ offices and the Prime Minister’s Office were held by men.
To come to that figure, The Hill Times used an October list exported from the government’s electronic directory services (GEDS) of all staff working for cabinet ministers and the Prime Minister’s Office, marked each by perceived gender and cross-referenced with our records. We removed departmental and administrative staff, students, interns, office managers, and drivers. While the public service annually reports staff numbers by gender, which is almost at parity at the executive level, no such data exists for political staff.
The dataset created by The Hill Times is imperfect and likely incomplete, sources agreed, but they said it offers a window into the political hiring decisions on Parliament Hill.
The number of male senior staffers creeps higher, argued Ms. Austin, when she reviewed those holding chief of staff and director roles in key economic offices that she saw as helping set policy, including: Finance, Innovation and Economic Development, Global Affairs and International Trade, Social Development, Employment and Small Business.
In every case, with the exception of Treasury Board and Natural Resources, chiefs of staff and directors were more than 60 per cent male.
Men in Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s (Toronto Centre, Ont.) office serve as chief of staff, budget director and director of communications, with a woman deputy chief of staff and director of parliamentary affairs. Aside from Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains’ (Mississauga-Malton, Ont.) communications director, three of four directors are men. Between the offices of Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland (University-Rosedale, Ont.) and Minister of International Trade François-Philippe Champagne (Saint-Maurice-Champlain, Que.), all directors are men save for Ms. Freeland’s director of operations. Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos’ (Québec, Que.) senior staff were all men.
Rachel Curran, a former policy director to former prime minister Stephen Harper, widened that analysis of the finance office.
“The senior policy folks and people dealing with budget look like they’re all men,” she said in an interview, adding it was true of the Harper government as well, with a couple of senior women in finance who were outliers. “Women do tend to get pigeonholed into softer policy files.”
Recruitment and changing attitudes are key solutions
Having women at the table can make a positive difference—from highlighting different perspectives on issues like tax policies, to their approach to work—Ms. Curran said during an April panel on women in politics.
“Truthfully, when we were doing trade negotiations on some of the really big trade agreements, we got better outcomes for Canada with female negotiators,” she said.
While her office was roughly evenly split, she recalled how hard it was to pull women into the pool of candidates, encountering a “different attitude” on job applications. Men would apply even if they didn’t have a financial background, figuring they would “learn it when they got there,” while women wouldn’t put themselves forward at all.
“I think that is the responsibility of people in management positions to [reach out to qualified women] but I also think more women have to be proactive for jobs like that and not assume they aren’t qualified.”
Still, she said she thinks the overall numbers suggest progress and are likely tied to Liberal Party commitments to gender parity.
“It certainly worked in the public service and that same effort is being applied at the political level, too,” Ms. Curran said. “It’s just taking longer.”
Canada’s first female chief of staff to a prime minister said by email there’s “no doubt” the gap exists in economic political arenas, which has tended to imitate senior echelons in the corporate world.
“I have often believed there are insidious barriers to entry in this area, having to do with the aforementioned boys club, and the requirement for a technical understanding of much of the vocabulary that is used in the world of finance,” said Jodi White, who was chief of staff to former Progressive Conservative prime minister Kim Campbell in 1993. “Neither of these reasons stand up to scrutiny.”
That excuse fails to explain chiefs of staff, who Ms. White noted do not need be experts in the field, but rather act as strong strategic advisers who can help a minister make the right political decision.
“It seems to me it is unclear why there have been fewer women in these key economic [chief of staff] positions,” said Ms. White. “But then, one has to ask why there have been so few women ministers in the finance position.”
Gaps at cabinet level affects staffing choices
Several people interviewed by The Hill Times pointed to the historical dearth of women ministers in these roles as part of the staffing problem and Equal Voice researcher Grace Lore observed women ministers were slightly more likely to hire other women for senior roles.
There has never been a female finance minister, and in 1984 Progressive Conservative MP Barbara McDougall became the first and last female minister of state for finance, an associate minister post. Almost a quarter century after Ms. McDougall occupied the foreign minister post, Ms. Freeland took the role as the third ever in the position. Ms. Freeland also became the second woman international trade minister, following in Pat Carney’s footsteps from 1986.
Only one woman has served as minister of innovation, then industry in 2003, when Liberal MP Lucienne Robillard took on the post for just under a year. In 2013, Conservative MP Lisa Raitt (Milton, Ont.) became Canada’s first female transport minister.
Women ministers, Ms. Austin said, currently make up the bulk of “junior portfolios,” while economic-minded cabinet committees—Treasury Board, Growing the Middle Class, Canada-United States Relations, Defence Procurement—are all chaired and vice-chaired by men.
Ms. McDougall’s former chief of staff Elizabeth Roscoe, now national practice leader at Hill & Knowlton Strategies, said she sees a marked difference in women at high levels in the public versus political officials. In a decade the public service has made strides in representation at the senior level. In 2016, 47.3 per cent of executives were women, compared to 38.8 per cent in 2006.
When she helped with transition teams for Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney in 1984 and again in 2006 for Mr. Harper, both focused on bringing in women, but it was hard to fill the gaps. The key to change she said will be focused recruitment and showing more women the political path is accessible.
“It’s not as if women aren’t involved in economic finance areas—they are,” Ms. Roscoe said. “The question is: do women want to become actively involved in politics that have that background?”
Ms. Curran said change will take constant monitoring and effort.
“I don’t think you can just hope with general awareness things will fix themselves over time. You have to take steps to make it happen and it becomes self perpetuating.”
—with files from Laura Ryckewaert
The Hill Times