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Women Need to Get More Interested in Politics - Now

07/15/2013 12:59 EDT | Updated 09/15/2013 05:12 EDT

Prime Minister Harper's cabinet shuffle has established four new female faces in ministerial positions -- Albertan Michelle Rempel and Murphy Brown Candice Bergen of Manitoba were acknowledged shoe-ins over the last few weeks; they'll be joined by Manitoba's Shelley Glover and Ontario's Kellie Leitch. It all seems like an advance toward gender equality in Canadian politics, even if installing a couple fresh female faces is at least partially about the Conservatives trying to shift the narrative to anywhere other than where it's been the last few months. Progress is progress.

Too bad a good number of Canadian women either have no idea there's a cabinet shuffle happening, or just don't care about it.

That's the takeaway from a recent study that finds women are out of touch when it comes to politics. According to study author Professor James Curran at the University of London, "It's not only that women tend to know less about public affairs, but they are more disconnected to the political process ... Women are more inclined to say they are not interested in politics than men. Women are also more inclined to say politics are complicated and difficult to understand."

As a man, I say the following with much discomfort: This will not do, ladies. Politics is important, no matter your gender. You need to do better.

Prof. Curran offers three possible explanations for his findings: That a) female disinterest is a "hangover" from the days when politics was the exclusive business of men; b) women are busier than men so don't have time for politics; and c) men are still significantly more prominent in politics and the news media and this is turning women off.

Reason "b" seems absurd to me. In my experience, males are no less busy people than females -- I know very few people of either gender, in fact, who aren't entirely busy, if not overworked. And as for theories "a" and "c," if there is (and/or has been) a male bias in the media, all the more reason for women to want to right a wrong.

In the weeks since the study surfaced, Canadian female commentators have tried to rationalize the findings in ways that don't ring true to me. The National Post's Barbara Kay argued men "know more about world news because more of them take pleasure in objective knowledge and historical facts ... that have nothing to do with their personal lives, (while) women, on the other hand, want to know about events and policies that have significance for their lived lives." Similarly, according to the Globe's Margaret Wente, "women tend to filter what they need to know. Their eyes glaze over at the media's daily offerings of 'gotcha' politics." Meanwhile, Shelley Fralic at the Vancouver Sun chronicles her difficult experience trying to make inroads into the news world way back when and then concludes, "If women are reportedly not absorbing the male version of news ... perhaps they don't need to change, but the way we report news does."

I've worked in media long enough to say with confidence that the inequity Fralic writes of is mostly a thing of the past -- indeed, looking around the office the other day I counted at least as many women as men, if not more. That's not to say Curran's study is inaccurate -- the study doesn't suggest all women are turned off by politics, and it makes sense women who are particularly interested in the subject might wind up working in media -- but the contention that politics falls outside the realm of female interest doesn't jibe with what I see on a daily basis. Indeed, the women I work with are as capable as the men of making sense of the news -- and are oftentimes more adept at grasping how political news, in particular, directly affects personal lives. I'd say the same of most of the women I call friends.

One might assume if anything is going to rouse women from their slumber it would be seeing other women in powerful political posts -- the Remples and Bergens of the world, you'd think, should motivate women to recalibrate their approach to politics. Then again, prior to the shuffle, there were 11 women in cabinet, and the previous Ministry (under Paul Martin) had 12 women -- their presence didn't make women any less politically apathetic. So the question is: What would make women change their attitude toward politics?

This might just be the answer.

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