09/17/2011 06:00 EDT | Updated 11/17/2011 05:12 EST

Woman Still Behind In Representation In Canadian Politics Despite Horwath's Leadership Success

TORONTO - A woman is in the running to lead Ontario for the first time in 15 years, but that doesn't mean there have been many gains made for female politicians, whose representation is still far below that of their male counterparts.

"If we look at the Ontario legislature comparatively with other legislatures around the world, right now, we're tied with Afghanistan for 30th in the world in terms of percentages of women in the legislature," said Tracey Raney, a politics professor at Ryerson University.

"There is still a widespread perception that politics is a man's world."

That perception is often backed up by the way women are treated when they do enter politics, with more attention paid to things like their physical attributes and marital status than to their actual policies, says Raney.

"This kind of media treatment is very damaging because it serves to constantly remind us, the public, that female politicians are women first and foremost, and that women are out of place in the cutthroat world of politics," said Raney.

There is also much more pressure on female leaders to prove themselves because they are so few, and are often only given a party's leadership when it is in disarray.

Ontario's last female leader, Lyn McLeod, headed the Liberal party from 1992 to 1996, taking over after former premier David Peterson's defeat to the NDP and Bob Rae. After several flip-flops, she lost the 1995 election, and resigned as party leader two months later.

She was succeeded by now Premier Dalton McGuinty, who stayed on as leader despite losing the following campaign. McGuinty eventually went on to win back-to-back majorities and, in the race for his third, has a female opponent in NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

Kim Campbell, Canada's first and only female prime minister, was also ousted after a losing campaign.

"Women get a really tough ride," said Lesley Byrne of Equal Voice, a national organization dedicated to the election of more women.

"Often women end up becoming leaders of parties when parties are really in the tank, and they end up wearing the problem."

That's not to say there aren't examples of great female politicians, Byrne added.

She points to federal NDP MP Olivia Chow and Ontario Tory Elizabeth Witmer, whom she cites as an excellent example of someone who has found a way to stay true to her beliefs and remain above the fray in the often hostile environment of Question Period.

"She decided early on that she wouldn't engage," Byrne said of Witmer.

"She would defend her party or her government's platform, as she saw fit and as her job demanded she do, but she wouldn't engage in name calling or any of the nastier debate techniques that happened in the House."

Witmer attributes much of her success to the decisions she made before entering politics, including putting family first and finding a way to achieve an ongoing balance.

"People will try to make you into somebody you are not," Witmer said of entering politics.

"When I first got to Toronto people said that I didn't yell and scream enough, that I should be attacking — well, that's not my style. It's extremely important to always demonstrate respect for your colleagues ... you can always respectfully disagree."

Equal representation is important, Witmer added, because having varied voices with different life experiences allows for more input at any decision-making table.

Laurel Broten, Minister of Children and Youth Services, backs up that assertion, noting that the Liberals have worked hard to ensure women are in positions of power in their government, because they understand the need to have women's voices at the cabinet table.

"Out of 11 women at the cabinet table ... we're responsible for almost 80 per cent of all government spending," said Broten.

"That is ultimately where the rubber hits the road, and where issues of importance to women and families get debated, and that's where we get results."

Horwath, perhaps the most high-profile female candidate running, remembers it was initially difficult for her to find her voice after winning the party's top job in 2009. The way her speeches and questions were written really didn't reflect who she was.

"The tone and the voice that I was being given in terms of suggestions about how to do my job didn't fit," said Horwath.

"It's taken us a little while ... to reflect who I am as a person and as a woman. It is different than the way men tend to do things, and that's not a bad thing."