Feb. 18, 2020

UCalgary political scientist examines perceptions of leadership within Canadian political parties

Brenda O’Neill is first winner of Thelma Margaret Horte Memorial Fellowship in Women and Society
Brenda O'Neill

Brenda O'Neill receives inaugural research award in memory of Margaret Horte.

Courtesy Brenda O'Neill

When it comes to the notion of gender equity within the ranks of Canada’s political leadership it seemed, for a brief moment, as if a semblance of parity had been achieved in the period between February 2013 and April 2014. In that window of time, women made up half of Canada’s premiers, including leadership in the country’s most economically powerful provinces, with Christy Clark in British Columbia, Alison Redford in Alberta, Kathleen Wynne in Ontario and Pauline Marois in Quebec.

The moment, however, now seems but a blip. Last April, when Rachel Notley was defeated by Jason Kenney in the Alberta provincial election, Canada’s roster of premiers was, again, all male, which has largely been the status quo throughout the country’s history.

Dr. Brenda O’Neill, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science, is looking to find out why that is with her new research project, entitled Perceptions of Political Leadership in Canadian Political Parties. She undertakes this project thanks to the Thelma Margaret Horte Memorial Fellowship in Women and Society, a $10,000 research award that was established in the memory of Horte. The newly inaugurated fellowship will be awarded annually to a faculty member in the Faculty of Arts.

Annual fellowship honours women's rights advocate

Horte was a determined advocate of women’s rights, committed to advancing the cause of women in society and fighting for equality in the workplace. O’Neill is the first winner of this annual fellowship in Horte’s name.

“There’s been a lot of research on voters and how they assess, evaluate and stereotype party candidates,” says O’Neill. “But we don’t know much about how this assessment process works within political parties. And this is of crucial importance, because the parties decide who their leaders are going to be.”

O’Neill will be examining how leadership is defined and understood within political parties with her focus trained on two groups within the various parties.

“On one level you have the party membership,” she says. “For twenty dollars or so you can be a member of a political party and the vast majority of parties now actually allow members to vote for their leader. It’s telling, I think, that the party membership which votes during a leadership race is often different than the membership of that party even six months later. People take out memberships just to vote in that race.”

Secondly, O’Neill will be putting the microscope on the “political elites.”

“These are the people who run the party, who hold some sort of office. They’re the networkers, the ones who encourage certain people to run as party leaders.”

O'Neill seeks perceptions of leadership

O’Neill will seek to interview these party elites on their “perceptions of leadership.” “What are the strategic calculations they make when they’re choosing their leaders?” she asks.

She plans to query party members through questionnaires, to better understand how they perceive the skills, qualities and capabilities associated with party leadership.

By reaching a fuller understanding of these perceptions, O’Neill hopes to evaluate how understandings of leadership might make it harder, or easier, for certain groups to rise to the position of party leader.

O’Neill begins her project at a time of particular interest, as the Conservative Party of Canada is in the middle of a leadership race, with the results to be determined on June 22. This is sure to complicate her work but could also create considerable research opportunities.

“I have to be strategic in my approach,” O’Neill says. “And I’m not sure yet which parties will participate. . . It’s a huge project and it’s an important one. The work has just begun.”