With Alison Redford's surprise victory in the Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership race, she is about to become Canada's fourth sitting female premier — the highest number since Confederation.

The timing's a little tricky, since we don't know yet when Redford will formally take the reins from Ed Stelmach, and whether it will happen before Newfoundland and Labrador voters weigh in on Kathy Dunderdale's tenure as premier on Oct. 11. The most recent polling suggests Dunderdale will secure a firm grip on the overwhelming majority she inherited from Danny Williams.

Canada's female premiers

  • Kathy Dunderdale, N.L.
  • Christy Clark, B.C.
  • Eva Aariak, Nunavut.
  • Alison Redford, Alberta premier designate.

Alberta's Redford will become just the seventh woman in Canadian history to break the political "glass ceiling" of becoming a leader of a province or territory. And another woman, Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith, is widely considered the strongest threat to Redford keeping her new job in the province's next election, which has no set date yet.

It's also possible Dunderdale could be facing a female leader of the official Opposition after the election, if Lorraine Michael's New Democrats leapfrog the provincial Liberals into second place next week. (The province's current campaign almost made more Canadian history by featuring three female leaders. But in August, Liberal Leader Kevin Aylward replaced Yvonne Jones, who is receiving treatment for breast cancer and stepped down because she didn't believe her health was strong enough to face the rigours of a campaign.)

Women in politics: How does Canada rank?

May's federal election saw the number of women elected to the House of Commons jump to 76 — a record increase of 25 per cent, largely due to almost 40 per cent of NDP candidates being women. Canada is now tied with Australia, with the 38th highest percentage of female members of its national assembly, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.  

The ratio still puts Canada far behind Scandinavian countries such as Sweden, Finland and Norway, which consistently cross the 40 per cent mark of women elected to national assemblies.

Rwanda became the first country in the world in 2008 to have a majority of women in its parliament after introducing a constitutional provision requiring a 30 per cent female participation in the assembly following the country's genocide in 2004.

Federally, Canada's still well ahead of the United States and Russia, with their percentages of female representatives at 17 and 4.7 per cent, respectively, according to the IPU.

Two of the five parties currently represented in the Commons are led by women, including the Official Opposition NDP. However, Nycole Turmel only leads the New Democrats on an interim basis since the death of Jack Layton, and the four declared candidates to replace her so far are all men.

Representation on the provincial level varies, ranging from just 11 per cent of seats being held by women in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, to 32 per cent in B.C. and Manitoba.

According to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the national average of women councillors is 25 per cent, while 16 per cent of mayors are women.

Some observers view this recent rise of female provincial leaders as real progress in Canada's otherwise slow path toward gender equality in political representation, which appeared largely stalled following a brief surge provincially and federally in the early 1990s.

"It's hugely significant," said Nancy Peckford, executive director of Equal Voice, a non-profit organization promoting more women being elected at all levels of Canadian government, of Redford's win.

"Does it mean we've arrived? Absolutely not."

Peckford credits Redford's win to her running an issues-driven campaign focusing on increased funding for education and health care, which appeared to resonate with PC members amid frustration with the uglier side seen in recent years in federal politics.

"I think it signifies increasingly that women are part of the political game, and what they're bringing to the table is a little bit different," she said.

But Peckford also notes two out of the four female premiers, Redford and B.C.'s Christy Clark, haven't faced voters yet and take over majorities either facing an electorate's disillusionment or anger with those they succeeded.

They are facing comparisons to earlier women in political leadership roles, including Canada's first female prime minister, Kim Campbell, and the country's first female premier, B.C.'s Rita Johnston.

Both rose to power internally and were "set up for failure" because their respective parties were so toxically unpopular with voters, said Joanna Everitt, a political science professor at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John and dean of the university's faculty of arts. 

While parties in trouble have in the past chosen female leaders to look as different as possible from the old guard at a time when they are desperate to regenerate themselves, Redford and Clark's untraditional rise to the party helm could also present enough of an alternative within the governing party's ranks to appeal to today's crop of disillusioned voters.

"I think we're in a new phase where parties and voters are looking for changes," Everitt said. "They're looking for the outsiders to bring in a different way of conducting politics.

"Some of these women will be successful."

Leading the leaders

Rita Johnston became Canada's first female premier in 1991 when she succeeded Bill Vander Zalm as head of the B.C. Social Credit Party, but only served few months as premier before being defeated in an election.

That same year, Nellie Cournoyer became the first female territorial premier in the Northwest Territories through consensus, while Catherine Callbeck became the first female premier elected by voters in a general election in 1993.  

In 2008, Eva Aariak won a forum consensus vote to become Nunavut's second premier, and the northern territory's first female premier.

Everitt said she believes today's female leaders won't face the same same stereotypical gender-based challenges, which she said may have played out in the 1990s. Since the overall number of women at all levels of politics has gradually increased over the last 15 years, it gives Canadians a greater familiarity and acceptance of women in public life, she added.

"Which is not to say they won't face any challenges at all," Everitt said, citing intense media scrutiny of former MPs Belinda Stronach and Helena Guergis.

Coverage of female politicians often focuses more on their appearance and personal lives, and less on their accomplishments or qualifications, she said.

"There are subtle differences in how they're being covered compared to men, but those differences can be very detrimental."