It’s a milestone, but is it a gift or a burden? Chrystia Freeland’s appointment as the first woman to serve as federal finance minister in Canada, and the second woman to serve in that job in any G7 country, has some experts worried about what some call the glass cliff.
Political scientists have long observed a pattern in politics and organizations: women are often appointed to leadership roles during times of turmoil, when success is less likely and the job less appealing.
Two famous examples in Canadian politics are Kim Campbell, who became the first female leader of the federal Progressive Conservatives just as public sentiment was swinging against that party; and Kathleen Wynne, who took over Ontario’s Liberals as they were slipping in the polls and grappling with a politically devastating gas plant scandal.
In Freeland’s case, she comes into the finance department amid a pandemic and the economic destruction it has wrought, as her government racks up record-breaking debt and reels from the WE Charity scandal, which many believe contributed to the departure of her predecessor, Bill Morneau.
But Melanee Thomas, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, takes issue with the glass cliff metaphor; among other things, she says, it wrongly implies that women are placed on the cliff without understanding or agency.
“Women who are in politics are strategic, careful actors. They understand the context that they’re in and they understand the opportunity structure and what they have to go through to get power,” Thomas said in an interview with the Star. “The barriers to women doing that are considerable compared to men.”
As for why it’s taken so long for a woman to helm Canada’s finance portfolio — not surprisingly, experts say, it probably has to do with sexism.
“For the most part … these attitudes are ubiquitous, across the ideological spectrum, across political parties, across levels of education,” Thomas said.
“People think that women can’t be involved in issues related to economics and foreign affairs, so that’s why we don’t see them in high numbers across the globe,” said Janni Aragon, a political scientist at the University of Victoria, adding that Freeland previously served as Minister of Foreign Affairs.
So will a woman approach the job differently, especially as women have been disproportionately affected economically during the pandemic?
Brittany Andrew-Amofah, a senior policy analyst at the Broadbent Institute, cautions against assuming that a woman serving as finance minister will directly lead to women being prioritized in budgetary decisions.
While a woman becoming finance minister is “definitely a cause for celebration,” Andrew-Amofah said, “we need to recognize that representation isn’t everything.” It’s important, she added, that the symbol be matched with substance; a minister that views policy through a gender-based lens that includes race “could be something quite significant.”
Freeland is bound to face harsh criticism in the role, said Sylvia Bashevkin, a political science professor at the University of Toronto who has studied women and politics since the 1970s. Women are far more likely to face questions of competence than men who do the same work. But Bashevkin is less worried about Freeland, who has shown the ability in demanding portfolios to win over or at least silence her critics, she said.