The results of the last American election have brought about a lot of uncertainty, especially considering nasty and divisive attitudes towards the election from both ends of the political spectrum. Hillary Clinton, despite winning the popular vote, will not become the first female president of the United States. Her loss should not be construed, however, as a symbol of overall defeat for women.
The Women’s March on Washington protest planned for the day after President-Elect Donald Trump’s inauguration, for example, proves women will not give up in the face of adversity. From the American presidency to the prestigious offices at the University of Toronto, there is every indication that women will keep fighting for equality and positions deserving of their efforts.
Despite Clinton’s loss, female leadership in the US is not declining by any means. In the latest Senate elections, held the same day as the presidential election, 21 female senators were elected, out of 100 available seats. In comparison, 1992 was considered the “Year of the Woman” and saw a record of five women in the Senate.
Notable examples from 2016’s election include the first Latina senator, Catherine Cortez Masto, as well as the first Indian-American senator, Kamala Harris. Currently, there are six state governors who are women, including Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island. Any one of them could eventually rise to the presidency.
Despite the number of women in the Senate and high expectations for Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren in the next four years, Laura Wiesen, PhD Candidate in the Department of History, wrote that future of female leadership in the US after the election looks bleak.
“Let’s put it this way: [President-elect Trump] has not given us any clues as to if he even intends to advance the role of women AT ALL, in any realm, let alone leadership. I don’t think it’s a priority for him,” Wiesen wrote.
In Canada, despite many challenges, women have risen to prominence in the political scene, with more than half of the federal cabinet being composed of capable women. Ministers Jody Wilson-Raybould, Chrystia Freeland, and Carolyn Bennett, among others, hold senior cabinet portfolios — Justice, Foreign Affairs, and Indigenous and Northern Affairs respectively.
The Conservative Party in Canada has also comprised many woman leaders; well known parliamentarians Lisa Raitt and Rona Ambrose were both cabinet ministers in Stephen Harper’s government before becoming a Conservative Party leadership candidate, and interim leader respectively. Canada’s first and only female Prime Minister to date, Kim Campbell, was also a Conservative.
Mayo Moran, Provost and Vice-Chancellor of Trinity College, does not underestimate the challenge that a Trump presidency will pose for women. She suggests that, “In the United States, it will be a more challenging period for many kinds of leaders including women, and in Canada it’ll be interesting to see the very different approach and attitude that our governments will take.”
“The biggest issue in my view, is that women’s concerns have never been considered central political concerns,” Wiesen said, condemning the lack of attention to women’s issues and alluding to a more deeply-rooted problem. “They are clickbait during election cycles, but the hard political work of advancing women is always out of fashion once the policy cycles begin.”
Regardless of the setbacks of the last American election, and other potential setbacks to come for women leaders, it is important to remain optimistic. U of T women in leadership seem to agree that women should continue to strive for these positions and continue to bring attention to women’s issues.
The long road to achievement
While change may be slow, it is important not to forget the progress that women have made significant strides in breaking glass ceilings in recent years. Clinton’s long career may not have led to presidency, but it did lead to the closest a women has ever been to becoming President of the United States, and that itself shows how far society has come.
The same can be said for U of T. The university has undergone considerable change over time to get on the path to equality, and is still changing to become a more diverse and inclusive community. For leaders like Moran, it took years to reach a position of prestige, to take charge, and to represent others.
“The most important thing to me about leadership is that it shouldn’t just be about blind ambition, it should be about actually wanting to make a difference,” Moran said. “I think the more diverse voices that we have in leadership, including women’s, will lead to improved leadership.”
Moran’s confidence mirrors her years of experience and dedication to her career. Starting out as a high school teacher in British Columbia, Moran chose to pursue a career in law and higher education, graduating from McGill Law School, obtaining a Master’s and Doctorate in law, and then working as a professor at U of T. She went on to be the first female Dean of Law, and after her second term, she took on the job of Provost. “I’m someone that’s always thinking about how we can make things better, and I guess that naturally draws you to leadership positions,” Moran said.
There is little challenge to the idea that leaders must be competent and qualified to do their job. While what makes a competent leader is subjective, the career of a leader is what demonstrates passion and will, and of course, all their actual experience. This is one reason why Moran found the American election disappointing.
“Even if Hillary wasn’t your like, your absolute dream candidate, she did everything right… She was incredibly, and is incredibly accomplished… to see [someone] who was fabulous, especially in the last couple of debates … it’s kind of disheartening … and President elect Trump and some of his supporters brought out this, very sort of ugly, misogynistic streak in American politics, and probably around the world,” Moran said.
Unfortunately, relying on merit has not always been enough to reach positions of authority.
For instance, in the case of South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, Haley was faced with doubts, insulting allegations of adultery, and even questions about her religion due to her Indian background. Nevertheless, she managed to gain support from members of the Republican Party, and most importantly, support from the public in a state that had never before elected a female governor.
The challenges faced by women aspiring to be leaders are still present, even in a society that has moved forward in terms of equality. Moran said, “I think women have done very very well, but I still think there are questions asked of women and a bit of a skepticism about women’s leadership abilities in a way that are probably not directed towards typical paradigmatic leaders.”
A pattern is evident: women tend to be questioned on their ability to lead. Nevertheless, it seems that women increasingly persevere in the face of this skepticism.
Role models for each other
Becoming an example to others is inevitable for any leader and mentorship is often an associated requirement for leadership roles.
Wiesen suggested that Clinton’s defeat will inspire women to support one another further. “I think if anything [Clinton’s defeat] has galvanized women to continue to fight for this highest office,” Wiesen said.
Taking on the role of inspiration takes patience and humility; it is hard to plan. “I had a bit of an unusual course,” Moran explained, “I didn’t aspire to [become a leader] at all, actually. You know, I just, I think I just did what I loved doing,”
“I mentor many, many people, many of them new deans, men and women, so in a whole array of different areas,” Moran said. “Fundraising is something where women are often sort of ‘well, can they really fundraise?’ so people will come to me, and I mentor them and try to give them advice and help them out. I view it as part of my role really.”
Wiesen’s career trajectory is also impressive. She was a fourth-year undergraduate student when she decided to continue learning and studying. From there, she completed a Masters in International History and is currently working on a PhD at U of T. Wiesen also works as a TA with undergraduate students, with a straightforward goal: “I aim to be a warm, compassionate, and helpful guide to undergraduate students seeking skills to complete their degrees.”
Emily Wuschnakowski, a first-year undergraduate student aspiring to complete a double major in Political Science and Public Policy described her favourite role model: “Malala Yousafzai stood up to a countless number of men and [fought] for her right to education. She did this despite knowing the risks involved, and put her life at risk for the betterment of all girls. Most of all, her actions have made me really appreciate the education and the opportunities that I am getting here.”
People find inspiration in the face of adversity. Although Clinton lost, her campaign and Yousafzai’s story are all important to future generations of women. Wuschnakowski, for example, hopes to put herself in leadership positions more often, to improve her public speaking skills. “[Malala] has inspired me to use my education to help others and do my best to inspire others to do the same,” Wuschnakowski said.
Leaders also have role models of their own, people who have mentored, taught, or inspired them. Wiesen describes one of her own role models: “Here at U of T, Professor Rebecca Wittmann comes to mind. She’s a role model for me in many ways- as she’s managed to do such important research on the Holocaust trials all while raising a family.”
For any female students striving to be leaders, Wiesen advised women to take themselves seriously and stand up for their ideas. “I think it’s important to be kind and courteous to everyone, but only to a point,” Wiesen said. “I think I suffer from being too diplomatic at all times. If you feel someone is dismissing your arguments too quickly or not listening to you — don’t hesitate to point it out. Work hard, and be kind to yourself.”
There are four more years before women will have another shot at the American presidency and women still have a long way to go to reach full equity, but Wuschnakowski still has hope. “If one man’s opinion hasn’t stopped us already, then I’m pretty confident that it won’t now.”