Gender Parity in the Cabinet

Commentary, Politics, Rants

Stephen Harper had an extremely unstable cabinet, shuffling ministers around regularly and often making appointments that were questionable at best. Remember the environment minister who was a climate change denier in his spare time?

This isn’t unique to Mr. Harper. Patronage has been the method by which most of the top positions have been chosen in Canadian politics for most of our history. For some people, this has been a consistent concern, particularly when Prime Ministers make terrible choices like the example I gave above. But the vast majority of Canadians don’t really care. I’ve often seen them claim with an indifferent shrug of their shoulders that those ministers must have been chosen for a reason. There’s a general feeling of trust that a mostly male, arbitrarily appointed Federal Cabinet is probably somehow qualified to do the job. When they prove themselves to be unqualified by doing a bad job, they’re judged individually on the merit of their work, not collectively on the reasons they got the position the first place, and the country gets on with its day.

Introduce gender parity as Justin Trudeau just did, and suddenly people come out of the woodwork and decide they give a MASSIVE shit about merit-based minister selection.

Prime Ministers overlook qualified female candidates in favour of their friends all the time and few even notice, but introduce even the slightest chance that an even slightly better male candidate may have been overlooked in order to make the cabinet look more like the actual Canadian population, and suddenly it’s a problem. No one even stops to consider that maybe we have gender parity not because Trudeau is throwing out qualified male candidates, but because he’s actually bothering to consider female candidates in the first place, something that previous PMs rarely seemed to do.

Few people have bothered looking at how qualified the new ministers are: they see a news headline about gender parity and jump to the conclusion that most of them must be unqualified because they must have been chosen on the basis of their genitals alone. It’s assumed that men got their position because they’re qualified, and that women or minorities got it to fill a quota. The widespread assumption that men are automatically more qualified results in more qualified women being turned down in favour of less qualified men all the time. It’s a problem that Justin Trudeau set out to overcome, and he seems to have succeeded.

Everyone is suddenly clamouring for merit-based appointment over representativeness-based appointment, but hiring is more than a simple, objective checklist that can be equally applied to anyone and everyone to come to a 100% guaranteed best conclusion. I’ve done this kind of appointment work before, where you’re given way too many qualified candidates for a limited number of positions, and have to find a way to organize them into those positions. In these processes, things like representativeness and interpersonal ability/circumstances become really important. You’re putting together a team that has to work cooperatively to effectively represent and serve a diverse social landscape.

When you go into this kind of process, you create an image in your mind of how you want the group to look as a whole once it’s formed, and then balance that against how you want each individual position to look. Sometimes you get lucky with the perfect group and the perfect candidate for each position, sometimes you have to make small sacrifices to one in order to improve the other, and that’s okay. Attempting to apply complete objectivity to people’s so-called “merits” to pick the exactly most “qualified” person for each position would overlook an important fact of humanity: humans are not work experience robots, and you can’t slot them into positions in the same way you would choose which smart phone to buy or which accounting software to install for your business. They’re complicated, and their ideas, work ethic, interpersonability, and yes, even their representativeness, all matter. Those things are all part of their “merits”. If you’re looking at specific work experiences alone, you run the risk of creating a dysfunctional and incapable team.

People complain about representativeness being chosen over qualifications, but when it comes to a representative body like a federal cabinet, representativeness is a qualification. This should go without saying, but a cabinet that’s more representative of the population will do a better job of representing the population. Ministers do more than just lead their individual ministry, they also do a lot of team work to create policy, and an unrepresentative cabinet cannot hope to make representative policy.

It’s also worth mentioning that in a government where policy is determined by a team and ministers have access to massive support and staff structures, underqualification does not have to be the end of the world. Most of Harper’s cabinet ministers were woefully unqualified for their specific positions, but Canada kept chugging along.

Look, I’m no fan of Trudeau. I have many misgivings about him and the Liberal party, and I don’t trust them any more than all of you nay-sayers. However, forced gender parity in the cabinet is not the massive problem all these people seem to think it is. If anything, it’s a step up from the “appoint your old, white friends and a token minority or two” system used by previous PMs, because at least this one is relatively representative of the population. So stop your complaining. If you’re bothered about a specific minister’s lack of specific experiences, then be critical in that way, but don’t jump to the conclusion that the ministers must be unqualified just because Trudeau had the audacity to actually seriously consider some female candidates for once. Try to treat our gender-equal cabinet the same way you treated the mostly-male one: judge them individually on their level of experience and the quality of their work, rather than assuming they just got the job because they happen to have a certain set of genitalia. If you were fine with previous ministers getting their position because they were white men who were chummy with the PM (and all evidence suggests that this could be the only reason many of them got it) then you have no right to complain about the possibility that this time around, maybe some were more strongly considered for a ministry because they were women.