Strength in numbers is clear for Queen’s female politicians

How differential treatment stops women from running for office

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Jessica Dahanayake (Sci ’20), AMS vice-president (Operations), sometimes second-guesses herself in her role as part of the Society’s executive. The student politician says these doubts are intertwined with concerns about how she is perceived as a woman in a political position. 

According to research conducted by Politico, at the university level, more than half of women don’t believe they would ever be qualified to run for political office. For men of the same age, the opposite is true; the vast majority feel like they would be more than qualified. 

At Queen’s, women candidates report this trend is no different. In interviews with The Journal,  women in campus leadership positions report being overlooked, discouraged from running, and treated differently when in office.

“You’re worried about coming off as ‘bitchy,’ when you’re strict […] I think that plays a factor in it. Tangibly, that’s the main thing. That’s the type of thing I think about the most,” Dahanayake told The Journal when asked about gendered expectations set for her as a female politician.

Often, she says, she feels as though the expectations were greater for her as a female candidate.

“The pressure to be ‘on’ all the time ... I feel like that is, in part, because of my gender. Just to be on the ball, to be vocal in meetings, stuff like that. I think whenever I’m talking to older people in the university sometimes, I can see how I get treated differently in conversations, or how different connotations are applied to me.” 

When women run for office, they’re equally as likely to win as men are. However, women are underrepresented in politics because they often decide not to run. This “ambition gap” isn’t universal across women of all ages. In high school, men and women are equally likely to run for positions on student council, and report having the same amount of interest in politics, according to Politico. But female political engagement, as well as desire to run for office, decreases with age.

Even after university, only 57 per cent of women in policy-related fields (such as law, education, and business) felt qualified to run for office, compared to 73 per cent of men. The reasons behind this lack of self-belief seem clear: when women run for political office, unequal treatment persists from the campaign trail to long after the election is over. 

This kind of unequal treatment begins before women have even put their name forward to run. Men are far more likely than women to be encouraged to run for office by those already in politics, along with friends, colleagues, and family. 

Accordingly, when women are encouraged to run, the impact is tangible. Dahanayake found that she was met with overwhelming support when she declared her intent to run for office. 

“[The reaction to me running for office] was all very positive. My colleagues, my friends, were all very supportive of the fact that I wanted to run,” Dahanayake told The Journal regarding her campaigning experience. 

Dahanayake said this support, coupled with her desire to serve her school, reaffirmed her decision to run. 

“I have such an immense passion for the services and the student body, and wanted them to be the best that they could be for years to come.” 

Still, even when women do decide to run, they’re often met with a whole host of challenges while campaigning. When Alex da Silva (ConEd ‘19), Queen’s 36th rector and the first female rector in ten years at the time of her appointment, found she was often discounted as a candidate on the basis of her gender.

“I felt the confidence gap towards the tail end of the campaign, and then after I was actually in the position,” da Silva told The Journal. “I say towards the end of the campaign because I have mutual friends who had heard of people who weren’t voting for me simply because of my gender, which hadn’t even crossed my mind as a possibility.”

Often times, these gendered ideas distracted from da Silva’s actual platform. 

“Something that seemed so meaningless to me as somebody who knew that I was passionate about what I could accomplish with this kind of a platform […] It was a wake-up call to realize that [my gender] was something that could deter people from voting for me, or seeing me as a viable candidate.”

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Upon being elected, both da Silva and Dahanayake said that during their campaigns, they often felt like their gender led them to be treated different than men in similar positions.

“During my time as rector, it was less about hearing things through the grapevine, or directly that people considered me less viable than a male counterpart,” da Silva said. “It was less of a verbal communication, and more something that I feel when I walk into certain rooms, either because of a lack of female representation in the room, or a certain air that people are giving off.”

There seems to be some solace found in allyship, however. For da Silva, addressing her feelings surrounding unequal treatment and self-doubt with other female colleagues was helpful.

“The first time [I spoke about this] was [with] another woman at the university […] She said she's observed in so many of her female colleagues this automatic instinct to question oneself. Her just saying that to me, having an open conversation about it, changed the way I felt in that moment [...] It was really meaningful for her to shine a light on how I was feeling.”

Da Silva further emphasized the value of female representation.

“Representation is so big. I find myself looking, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, for allies: noticing things in people that I myself identify with,” da Silva said. “Having those people that I can see in meetings, [I] remember that it’s not just me taking up this space alone.

According to da Silva, paying active attention to female representation in politics, and having open and honest conversations about unequal treatment, are key to remedying the ambition gap between men and women. However, da Silva noted that putting aside our own prejudices when engaging with female candidates is most important. 

“When when we’re talking to people who are interested in running for a certain position, or are putting their name forward [...] questioning whether [a] refusal to support someone is due to their competency or due to unconscious biases that we hold is another part of talking about it.” 

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