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Mission accomplished?

There has been a lot of media fanfare about the status of women in recent weeks. With the final episode of Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, the New York Times featured an article “Tina Fey Signs Off, Broken Barriers Behind Her” in which Alessandra Stanley elaborates on the milestones Fey has reached, and the doors she has opened for other female comedians.

“When ’30 Rock’ had its premiere in 2006 Ms. Fey was that rare thing, a female writer starring in her own prime-time network show.” – Alessandra Stanley

In Canada, we have our own little version of women’s liberation supposedly realized, with 5 provinces and 1 territory currently featuring a female Premier, a majority of Canadians are now governed by a women.
Kathleen Wynne
  • Kathleen Wynne (Lib) – Ontario 
  • Alison Redford (PC) – Alberta 
  • Kathy Dunderdale (PC) – Newfoundland and Labrador 
  • Christy Clark (Lib) – British Columbia 
  • Pauline Marois (PQ) – Quebec 
  • Eva Aariak – Nunavut
Politics, like comedy writing/production, has pretty much been a man’s game. So what should we make of the sudden proliferation of female leaders?
Is it time to be cautiously optimistic that talented women are not just breaking barriers, but changing the industries in which they work, permanently opening them up to a broader spectrum of participants? Is this it for the boys’ club?
While Stanley admits that other female comedians have also made it in the past (Lucille Ball, Carole Burnett, Roseanne Barr), she suggests that there is something different about the impact that Fey has had, having paved the way for other comedians like Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation) and Whitney Cummings (Whitney; Two Broke Girls).
Has Tina Fey really broken the glass ceiling in television production, or is she just this generation’s Roseanne Barr? Maybe every generation gets one female performer that makes it through into a position of relative power. Overall numbers of women in comedy remain low (don’t believe me, go to a comedy club tonight and count them), so a handful of successful female comedians on television is perhaps proportional to their overall participation in the industry. In that case, until numbers increase overall, not much will change, no matter how successful individuals like Fey become.
Michaelle Jean
David Johnston
And what of our female politicians? There is a precedent in Canadian politics for women to be handed parties when they are imploding – for example, Kim Campbell for the post-Mulroney Progressive Conservatives. The argument could certainly be made that Kathleen Wynne has been handed a hopeless case.

I worry is that this random moment in which women happen to hold powerful positions will be taken as a sign of mission accomplished. We might believe equality has been won, even if in the coming years, overall numbers of women in positions of power don’t actually improve all that much. This week, as John Kerry took up the position of Secretary of State in the US (formerly held by Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton), he joked that the question on everyone’s mind is “Can a man do this job?” We might have said the same thing a few years ago about Canada’s Governor General after both Adrienne Clarkson and Michaelle Jean proved very capable and popular in the position, but then current GG David Johnston looks a lot like every other accomplished, grey-haired, white-man to hold the position prior to 1999. 
Are we really going places fast? Is Clinton the next President? Or was this just a blip on the gender equality radar? Will it be back to business as usual?

3 thoughts on “Mission accomplished?

  1. I reckon that it will be real progress when, after looking beneath the name of the woman at the top of some heap, the category of potential replacements looks about 50/50. It's great if the Chair of some board, or the President of a University or the Premier of a province, is female, but if she's the only woman in the room that's not a lasting achievement. If she looks around and half the faces looking back are women, that's when it will be much harder for anyone to turn back the clock.


  2. The other thing that comes to mind about the premiers listed above is that, while the list is admirable, only one is not white. I can't help thinking about the perspectives and interests that Jean brought to the position because of her Franco-Haitian heritage (or Adrienne Clarkson and her Asian-Canadian experience, for that matter).


  3. I completely agree. Having the occasional women in a high-ranking position really offers a convenient anecdotal evidence for women succeeding: “this one women was the ceo of an importnat company once, so there are no longer any gender inequality issues…”. It really speaks to the shortcomings of the glass-ceiling metaphor. It isn't just that it needs to be smashed, because we have evidence that certain women at certain times are selectively let through, but this doesn't necessarily change the field for everyone else. I'd say racial inequality in Canadian politics is probably even worse than gender inequality, though I think they are clearly related. I wonder to what extent both Clarkson and Jean were doing “minority double-duty” being both gender and racial minorities in the field of politics. In this sense, the powers that be have even greater justifications for returning to the status quo because they've already had a female GG and an Asian-Canadian GG – killing two birds with one stone, so to speak.


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