Appointing a gender-parity Cabinet seems to be the thing to do if you are a rising, progressive and male political star.
Yet my research shows that numerical representation of women is not the silver bullet it has long been considered. What’s more important for achieving meaningful equity is that women control key political resources. In the highest echelon of politics, that means occupying senior Cabinet positions with the greatest financial and staff resources.
When being present is not enough
But what about that famous rallying cry for bringing more women into politics? “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu” makes sense intuitively. And, in political systems such as France and Canada, it is in Cabinets where the major policy decisions are being made. Having 50 percent women in a Cabinet seems to signal that women’s concerns are being taken seriously: for example, by passing a gender sensitive budget or addressing implicit sex bias in tax codes.
Unfortunately, research consistently has shown that women are relegated to lower-level or female-friendly Cabinet positions such as health, families, development or sports. Essentially, this means women might have a voice in Cabinet meetings but they cannot move the policy needle in important areas such as foreign affairs, finance or employment.
So how do the Cabinets of Trudeau and Macron measure up? Are they truly feminist – in other words, committed to sharing power equally between men and women? Or are these ostensibly equitable Cabinets mere window dressing? Unfortunately, under both Trudeau and Macron, men still occupy the majority of powerful positions.
In Canada, there is only one woman among the five most important Cabinet members. Other important portfolios, such as foreign affairs or finance, are all headed by men. The sole exception is Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould. The remaining women head the so-called “pink” departments like families, development and sports.
Because women occupy less important positions, female Cabinet ministers also have less of a voice in Parliament. For example, a study showed that female Canadian ministers answered fewer questions than their male colleagues when the parliamentary opposition questioned the government. Further, women’s issues are not included on the legislative agenda of the government. Oxfam recently came out with a damning report of Trudeau’s government policies claiming that it was all talk and little action.
In France, the picture is similar. Men head all senior Cabinet positions: interior, environment, justice, economy, foreign minister and defense. Macron had originally appointed Sylvie Goulard for defense minister, but she had to resign due to a political scandal. As in Canada, women are relegated to the “female ministries” of culture, labor, sports and health. And while Trudeau’s Cabinet is highly diverse in terms of ethnicity and age, Macron’s Cabinet is mostly old and white – if not male. With few women in key Cabinet positions, it is likely that Macron will follow Trudeau’s lead in a less admirable way – by not doing much in terms of policies that help women like equal pay rules or corporate board quotas.
If Macron and Trudeau truly want to address women’s political needs, they need to share power by appointing women to powerful Cabinet posts. Only when women control political resources will there be a real chance of women’s concerns being included in the top echelons of politics.