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Former BC Premier Christy Clark speaks at U of T on women in leadership

Clark: “‘Nice’ is not a necessary attribute for male leaders.”
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Clark was the longest serving female premier in Canada. VICTORIA MCCUTCHEON/THE VARSITY
Clark was the longest serving female premier in Canada. VICTORIA MCCUTCHEON/THE VARSITY

Former Premier of British Columbia Christy Clark spoke at Innis Town Hall on January 22 about issues facing women looking to rise to positions of leadership.

The event was hosted by the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, and ran as a part of the Women in Leadership series of the David Peterson Public Leadership Program.

Clark held the office of premier for six and a half years — the longest-serving female premier in Canadian history.

She began her talk by highlighting one of her inspirations, Queen Elizabeth I. Clark praised the queen as a powerful example of women in leadership, calling her “massively successful.” When talking about the queen’s success, Clark refers specifically to the economic success during her tenure — even after inheriting a bankrupt state from her father, King Henry VIII.

Using this as a segue, Clark moved into one of the issues that plague women who wish to rise to leadership status, which she called the “‘nice and compliant’ versus ‘tough and confident’ paradox.”

According to Clark, this describes current societal pressures and expectations of women. Women who don’t conform are seen as “out of step with society’s expectations for what females should look like and how we should behave.”

“Navigating that very thin line between being tough enough to hold your own in male-dominated environments while at the same time remaining feminine enough to stay there,” is a unique experience for women, said Clark.

“‘Nice’ is not a necessary attribute for male leaders.”

Clark then began to describe her own experiences in office. She discussed the difficult transition after entering office following her predecessor, Gordon Campbell, who had resigned from office. Clark said that critics at the time were incredibly cynical of her potential.

The issue, Clark said, stemmed from the fact that she “had not had time to accumulate a strong record.”

Prior to becoming premier, Clark had served as a Member of the Legislative Assembly from 1996–2005, and throughout her tenure was appointed as the Minister of Children and Family Development and the Minister of Education.

As Minister of Education, Clark instituted various controversial changes to the education system, which were then overruled by the Supreme Court of Canada.

Speaking on the lack of confidence that people had in her, Clark said, “I am not sure if I could have survived those first two years as an unelected premier without a few influential men to give me credibility in the eyes of my critics.”

Clark acknowledged that women requiring male allies to rise to power might be less than ideal. She said that women “have to deal with the reality we live in, not the reality we wish existed.” That reality being the “male-privileged” society we live in, according to Clark.

However, she is optimistic about the future. Once enough women rise to power, Clark believes that there will be more equality in terms of influencers. As a result, there will be a growth in women supporting women.

Clark believes that one highly progressive aspect of her government — an aspect that Clark admitted she did not highlight at the time — was that about half the caucus during her tenure were women, she said.

“We were well on our way to creating a world filled with female influencers.”

Clark then went on to outline some of the decisions she made in office that led to the exponential growth of the province’s economy during her tenure.

Clark said that one of her biggest achievements was her re-election with a plurality of votes — a monumental step for the longest-serving female premier.

During the question period, Clark was asked about her experiences as a new mother in office. Clark replied that she had had certain privileges, such as being able to have her child in the legislature with her, which allowed her to succeed. However, it was a difficult situation to handle one’s political career and parental obligations.

At the end of her speech, Clark addressed the women in the audience who had an interest in holding public office and leadership positions. She offered the following words of encouragement: “The world is not going to change for the better, unless we get into it. The world will only become a better place when there are more of us.”