It's been a record-breaking year for women in Canadian politics, especially for female premiers, following a landmark 2011 when four female premiers were elected. That number increased to five in 2012.

The premiers, including those from three out of four of Canada’s largest provinces, are: Eva Aariak, Nunavut; Kathy Dunderdale, Newfoundland and Labrador; Pauline Marois, Quebec; Christy Clark, B.C.; and Alison Redford, Alberta.  

There are reasonable odds that Ontario could soon be led by a woman, given that two of the three frontrunners in the Ontario Liberal leadership race are women (Sandra Pupatello and Kathleen Wynne), plus the leader of the Ontario NDP is Andrea Horwath.

Federally, it's still a desert as far as women party leaders are concerned, with the exception of Elizabeth May in her Green Party of one. But there are still more women MPs than ever before, with the ratio now at 25 per cent, an all-time high.

The federal Liberal leadership race has four women candidates, compared with just one during the last Liberal race in 2006.

Women generally don't have 'helpmates'

It's hard to say whether female leaders, once in power, operate differently than men, but one factor that still makes them different than their male counterparts is that women leaders tend not to have the same kind of family profiles.

Male premiers are generally married and have two or more children. This is not an unfamiliar arrangement where male politicians benefit from wives taking on the role of helpmate, said Linda Duxbury, of the Sprott School of Business, who studies work-life balance and a changing workforce. "In that role of helpmate the female would be an asset for a male politician ... for a politician, they bring out their wife and kids like a prop," she said.

"My guess is if you look at the women who are in Parliament, and especially the women who are leading, they are probably divorced, or never married, or less likely to have kids," said Duxbury.

B.C.'s Clark is a divorced single mother, and Ontario Opposition Leader Horwath has her teenage son at home with her after separating from her partner of 25 years. Another opposition leader, Danielle Smith of Alberta's Wildrose Party, is childless. Alberta's Premier Redford is married with one child, while N.L.'s Dunderdale is widowed with two grown children, but she was a stay-at-home mom during her kids' formative years. Eva Aariak has four grown children and three grandchildren, but is separated.

The exception is Quebec's Marois, who has four children, is still married and has been a politician for decades.

Nancy Peckford of Equal Voice, an organization that promotes women in politics, thinks women are now bringing their life experiences, which are different than those of male politicians, to their jobs, and most critically to their campaigns.

Clark and Horwath have talked openly about the challenges of single-parenthood. Marois, as education minister in the '90s, brought in Quebec's five (now seven) dollar a day daycare, and ran her last campaign on a promise to create more spaces.

The new power of women voters

The other phenomenon in the last few years is the rise in power of women voters.

U.S. President Barack Obama was elected as much by women as he was by Hispanic and black voters, due to his positions on health, education and Planned Parenthood.

Calgary political organizer Stephen Carter, who ran Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi's surprisingly successful campaign, says that women elected Nenshi, an underdog who ran on a progressive approach to cities. Carter also ran Redford's campaigns, and thinks she brought the conservative vote share back up to 50 per cent because of women voters who were attracted to her policies on health and education.

Yet, women don't vote because of gender, according to Carter, which is one reason why Clark may be floundering in BC. Linda Duxbury added: "Women don't care about the gender as they do about certain issues. We really care about certain issues".

When women get together, says Carter, they talk about issues, and then mobilize. During Nenshi’s campaign, he says, "They would say, 'Have you heard about this Nenshi guy?' and there would be a discussion about the relative pros and cons of Nenshi. And then they would make a decision essentially by consensus."

That consensus, says Carter, is a more powerful voting pattern than "the guy way of approaching this, which is, 'I really like that Nenshi guy, that's who I'm voting for.'"

Women, according to Carter, own the social networks, which are much different, he stresses, than social media. It’s in the social networks, he says, that information spreads and communication takes place. And it’s now possible, he says, for political organizers to track how a community shifts its support from one candidate to another within the networks.

Women are voting more

Elections Canada statistics for the 2011 federal election show that women, especially younger women, are now voting at higher rates than men in all age groups up to age 64.

"They've got this unbelievable power, and I think they're going to grab it and see it and own it," Carter said. "They can see that they can elect a premier of a province, a mayor— I think they're going to start talking about how we elect a prime minister. "

Carter thinks women voters played an important role in the last federal election. "Jack Layton had the most appeal to women," he said. "Stephen Harper does not appeal to women, and I don't think Thomas Mulcair is going to be able to hold Jack Layton's support."

It's why, says Carter, he's so interested in the federal Liberal leadership campaign. (Carter is Martha Hall Findlay's campaign manager.)

"The race is an opportunity to select the next prime minister. And I think it is going to be done by women," he said.

Women in national parliaments

Canada ranks 47th in the world in terms of female representation in national parliaments. The charts below compare Canada's representation of women in national legislatures to other selected countries — and to a selection of countries with upper houses or senates — as of Oct. 31, 2012.

Source: Inter-Parliamentary Union