Are Women More Politically Progressive Than Men?

10/12/2011 04:31 EDT | Updated 12/12/2011 05:12 EST
BC Liberals

With four women in this country now holding the office of premier, have we reached some kind of political watershed? Over the last week, a lot of ink has been spilt debating this. There are some interesting conclusions.

The best explanation for why this is happening now seems to be that urban growth and changing demographics have made the suburbs politically important and, as a result, the influence of women (the soccer moms) is rising. If so, a further question is: What effect, if any, will gender have on our politics?

The view here seems to be that women lean more to the left than men. Alberta's new premier, Alison Redford, is seen as a case in point. She talks about education and supports publicly funded health care. So is this a sign of things to come?

If women are poised to play a bigger role in politics, I believe there will be a gender effect, but I don't think left vs. right is the best way of framing it. I agree that women will make politics more progressive, but this is not necessarily the same as more left-wing. Let me explain.

Over the last 15 years I've given hundreds of seminars to senior public servants across the country on how our society is changing and what governments must do to adapt. In the early days, much of this focused on the delivery of government services. Governments realized they could use the Internet to provide a variety of services online through a "single window." For example, you could renew a driver's license and car registration at the same time.

Interestingly, these sessions were disproportionately attended by women -- often by a ratio of two-to-one -- even though the senior ranks of the public services were dominated by men. Overall, men were clearly less interested in service delivery. They preferred to talk policy. Why this gender divide?

There seemed to be two reasons. First, in those days, policy was a highly competitive, contact sport where ambitious, mostly male contenders butted heads over who was the best and the brightest. Policy debate was a winner-take-all game that led to rapid promotion and alpha-male status within government. While men seemed to like this, many women found it off-putting, if not offensive.

Second, creating single-window services requires a lot of collaboration and teamwork. Leadership and recognition has to be shared, as do resources, ownership and accountability. By-and-large, women seemed more comfortable with this than men.

Eventually, I concluded that some kind of selection effect was at work here and that women were more naturally disposed to work collaboratively than men. They seemed more comfortable with sharing recognition, resources and leadership. They were less territorial and had less need for individual praise and recognition. If women are poised to play a bigger role in politics, something similar may start showing up in our politics.

Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak may be a harbinger. I recently interviewed her on her territory's poverty reduction initiative. Overcoming poverty, she insisted, must be a community effort. Government can't do it alone. Thus, she concluded, some kind of community-based approach was needed to help encourage local people to assume some personal responsibility for solving the issue.

More generally, her government's Tamapta Action Plan sets out a vision for the future and defines the values by which she says her government is guided. In particular, it emphasizes that traditional Inuit decision-making proceeded by discussion and consensus, and reaffirms the traditional Inuit value of self-reliance, which, Aariak was quick to point out, includes less dependence on government.

This is not exactly left-wing politics.

For her part, British Columbia Premier Christy Clark has proposed an ambitious plan for open government that is well ahead of other jurisdictions. It aims to promote the use of social networks and online tools to engage citizens, improve government's responsiveness and accountability, cut bureaucracy, and raise government productivity.

Clark's initiative reflects her vision of the government of the future, which will be more collaborative, likely smaller, and assume less responsibility to act as the principal provider of solutions to problems.

Also not very typical of the left wing.

So what does all this say about the alleged gender effect? I think women tend to be at least as concerned about how government works as they are about the tilt of its policies. As a cohort, they will lean to a style of governance that is less monolithic, less authoritative, more flexible, and more open. In a phrase, their approach to government and governance is more bottom-up.

I would also argue that bottom-up government is more progressive, in the sense that it is more likely to promote equality and inclusion, which, after all, is what it the term originally meant in politics. On the other hand, if "left wing" means assigning government an even greater share of the responsibility for solving problems, it is not at all clear that collaboration edges us toward the left. Aariak's desire to break the cycle of dependence on government makes this clear.

As a premier, she seems far more focused on changing government's relationship with the public, than its policies. Not that she is opposed to government intervention. The point is that she sees government as one player within the community, albeit a very important one. Government should look to partner with the community, not to be its principal problem solver and provider.

This, I submit, is the basic impulse behind a more collaborative approach to government. It is also the one I believe will be reflected in any rise in women's role in politics.