Sexist media scrutiny of women in politics spans decades, study says
'Women are discouraged from seeking leadership roles because of that kind of attention'
Hair, hemlines and husbands — media coverage of women running for federal political leadership in Canada has, historically, been quite different from their male counterparts.
This kind of personal scrutiny persists, and it's dissuading women from running for political leadership, according to a new study from the University of Alberta.
Political scientist Linda Trimble reviewed 2,500 newspaper articles spanning a 37-year period. She found that women who ran for leadership of major Canadian political parties faced scrutiny based on physical appearance or traditional gender roles that was disproportionate in relation to their male opponents.
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When Belinda Stronach sought leadership of the Conservative Party in 2004, a lot of media attention centred on her looks and alleged "lack of intellect" and portrayed her as a "puppet for the backroom boys," Trimble told CBC Edmonton's Radio Active.
"Anne McLennan, who was Deputy Prime Minister at the time, said 'This is going to put women off politics,'" Trimble said.
"And certainly women are discouraged from seeking leadership roles because of that kind of attention."
Men's bodies discussed less than women
The first woman who sought the leadership of a national political party in Canada was Rosemary Brown, who ran for the NDP in 1975, Trimble said. Since then, there have been only 13 women who have followed suit — three of them running twice.
That's not very many women, Trimble said.
The women who had a high profile, were competitive to win a race, or were the first to achieve a particular position were often faced with a lot of intensely personal scrutiny and media coverage, she added.
Take Kim Campbell, who ran for leadership of the Progressive Conservative party, becoming Canada's 19th — and only female — Prime Minister in 1993.
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"There was a lot of attention to the fact that she was twice divorced, didn't have children, she was called unstable, hysterical, a lot of attention to her body and her sexual allure, she was called a blonde bombshell," Trimble said.
This kind of media coverage suggests leadership performance for women is centered around their bodies and appearances, and that hasn't changed much over the decades, Trimble said.
The study did find a couple of examples of scrutiny toward's men's appearances. Former Prime Ministers Paul Martin and Stephen Harper made headlines for their weight: Martin deemed too heavy, and Harper praised for losing 25 pounds.
"Men's bodies sometimes are discussed, but way less frequently than women," Trimble said.
The downside of the study is that there have been only four women who have won leadership of a national party, the last one being Elizabeth May when she took the reins of the Green Party in 2006. So it doesn't have any examples of "highly visible, highly competitive women" in the last 10 years, Trimble said.
Men's bodies sometimes are discussed, but way less frequently than women.- Linda Trimble, political scientist
Trimble is releasing a book called Ms. Prime Minister: Gender, Media and Leadership next year on the topic of representation of women in politics.
She says the media should pay careful attention to how it addresses female politicians, including giving their ideas equal attention.
"If you wouldn't say this sort of thing about a man, if you wouldn't talk about his sexual orientation or his looks or his marriage, would you do the same for a woman?" Trimble said.
"Sometimes women have to work hard to convince people in the press that they do embody strength and fortitude and determination."