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Despite ministerial parity, women still underrepresented as senior cabinet, PMO staff

By Samantha Wright Allen      

Women hold 40 per cent of senior Liberal political staff roles, and fare slightly better under female ministers suggesting gender parity may be making a difference, observers say.

Former political staffers say it will take a concerted effort to close the gap of women holding senior roles in government. From left: Rachel Curran, former policy director to prime minister Stephen Harper; Michele Austin, was chief of staff to Conservative minister Rona Ambrose; and Isabel Metcalfe, who worked for three Liberal prime ministers in the '70s and '80s.
The Hill Times file photograph and photographs courtesy of Rachel Curran and Michele Austin

Even though the Liberal cabinet was designed with gender parity in mind, women only represent 40 per cent of the senior staff supporting those ministers’ offices.

Those positions—made up of chiefs of staff and their deputies, directors of policy, communications, parliamentary affairs and senior advisers—are the gateways to ministers and the people who help shape political decisions, observers said.

“That’s where the primary influence is,” said Rachel Curran, former policy director to prime minister Stephen Harper. “Those are the people helping set the agenda in conjunction with the minister.”

While the Liberal government seems to have made more of an effort staffing women in political circles, Ms. Curran said having 60 per cent men in senior positions is “indicative that there is a problem there.”

Men held 98 of 162 positions, according to a Hill Times analysis using 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, job title and cross-referenced with our records. 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.

This is the second of a two-part series looking at women at senior political staff levels. 

“Women still have a long way to go to be considered equal,” said Michele Austin, who was chief of staff to former Conservative minister Rona Ambrose, after reviewing The Hill Times’ staff lists. “Progress has been made, but certainly not in the senior staff rank.”

Women ministers help close staffing gender gaps

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s (Papineau, Que.) gender-parity cabinet may be helping women inch closer to equality among senior roles, several observed.

Women represent 43 per cent of the senior roles when hired by female ministers compared to 35 per cent when male ministerial offices are lumped together, according to The Hill Times’ dataset.

“It looks like gender parity in cabinet is part of the story,” said Grace Lore, senior researcher at Equal Voice, noting the shifting nature of staffing on the Hill makes it hard to confirm, but it’s clear to her “there’s something going on.”

Equal Voice senior researcher Grace Lore. Photograph courtesy of Grace Lore

Drawing a line that led to that result is a little more difficult, she said, whether it’s credit to the prime minister’s “prioritization of the issue” or because of “the women around the table.”

Either way, having more women at senior levels is important, Ms. Lore said because they “set agendas” as well as “the tone, the politics, and also the policy” in government.

Ms. Curran also said she noticed female ministers were more likely to hire women as staff.

I don’t think that is how we want things to work either,” she said, adding there needs to be a “good mix in every office.”

While Ms. Curran’s PMO policy staff were an even split between men and women, she said that wasn’t true in other offices, estimating about 75 per cent of senior roles were taken up by men. The Hill Times looked at its own political staffing records from February and March 2015 to offer one snapshot and found, at that time, women represented about 37 per cent of senior positions. That dropped to 24 per cent for chiefs of staff and deputy chiefs of staff.

“In recent years there’s been a real push to look at statistics and, if they aren’t balanced, to try and do something about it,” Ms. Curran said. “Maybe that’s proactive hiring, maybe it’s encouraging more applications from qualified women candidates, but steps are being taken to fix that balance.”

That was also the case under Mr. Harper, but she said the Liberals may be seeing the shift because “it’s a political priority” to show there is some degree of balance.

Clare Beckton, executive director of the Centre for Women in Politics and Public Leadership at Carleton University, said she isn’t surprised by the numbers. The rate women graduates get hired and elevated in their field doesn’t “translate at all” when compared to their male peers, she noted.

“There’s still structural impairments that exist in the system and unconscious bias” that get in the way, and political staffing involves a number of factors including experience and party connections, she said.

That “conscious effort” to promote enough women needs to happen on the part of all political parties, she said, and the current gap isn’t a problem unless “there’s no effort or recognition to try to continue towards that kind of equity.”

‘Remarkable change’ compared to decades before

The number of women in senior roles is “remarkable,” compared to her experience four decades ago, said Isabel Metcalfe, who worked as support staff for three Liberal prime ministers—Pierre Elliott Trudeau, John Turner, and Jean Chrétien.

She recalled having few female role models and senior roles feeling unattainable. As a young woman she faced “constant innuendo” and comments that made her “feel constantly inadequate, never smart enough,” and always reduced to her appearance.

The Hill Times staff list also shows an overrepresentation of women in support staff roles, with the exception of drivers.

Having women in high-profile roles helps close the gap, several suggested, with many pointing to Mr. Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford as a strong example.

The chiefs of staff breakdown follows the overall trend, with 13 women out of 32 people leading the PMO and cabinet offices. The numbers are by no means static, with staff moving between ministries or out of government. Just in February, there was more balance among chiefs of staff, with 15 women of the then-31 posts.

Having 40 per cent women in senior roles is “fantastic” and Parliament is “very much transformed,” said Ms. Metcalfe, a lobbyist with Public Affairs Counsel who is also the founding chair of Famous 5, which celebrates women’s successes.

But she said she feels the issues remain the same as when she worked in the Commons.

“For every woman, adequate childcare remains the ramp to employment, so it’s always about how you can balance work and family, particularly in these very tough political roles where the pressure is intense,” said Ms. Metcalfe, who was a young mother while in the PMO.

The long, late hours and frequent travel are not conducive to family life, agreed former Conservative staffer Susan Norquay, and can be barriers for women.

She said there were—and still are—men who were uneasy working closely with women, though that wasn’t her experience with either former minister Chuck Strahl as his director of parliamentary affairs or Progressive Conservative minister Charlie Mayer as his chief of staff in 1993. 

“Ministers have to feel confident dealing with women in staff positions and I think there are lots of politicians who are not comfortable with women in senior positions in their office, for whatever reason,” Ms. Norquay said.

She doesn’t see that as unique to politics, but rather “symptomatic that women still have a very, very difficult road to take.”

Ms. Austin said the solution “isn’t rocket science,” but it will take more considered action.

“You need to be committed every single day to doing things differently. We need to step outside the comfort zone. We need to bring more women in than men if you’re going to change the way things work,” she said. “It can’t be parity, it’s got to be more.”


The Hill Times

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