The Queen’s death is a stark reminder of how few women leaders there are

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This column is an opinion by Jessica Barrett, a freelance journalist based in Calgary. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Within minutes of the Queen’s death hitting the news cycle, the group chat I keep with a handful of close women friends blew up. 

At first, most of us didn’t seem to have strong feelings about the Queen or her passing, but when the conversation turned to what comes next, things got more passionate. 

For a generation of women raised on the ideals of third-wave feminism, the idea of reverting to a king as our head of state — and not just King Charles but any king — feels uncomfortably regressive. It’s like submitting to the patriarchy in its most literal form.

In fact, it does signal a return to a distressing status quo.

When Elizabeth II took the throne 70 years ago, women world leaders were an anomaly. Most had claimed power through flukes of history or gaps in male succession, such as the string of unlikely events that saw Elizabeth become Queen. She ruled for eight years before the world saw its first democratically-elected woman leader, Sri Lanka’s Sirimavo Bandaranaike, in 1960. 

One would have hoped the decades since would have seen substantial progress towards gender equality in democratic spheres, so that losing the example of female leadership set by a hereditary monarch wouldn’t be notable to someone like me. That hasn’t happened. 

How far we haven’t come

Only 22 out of 193 countries had female heads of state or government as of May 2022, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Only 13 had gender parity in the national cabinet and just three in a national legislature. At this rate it will take 130 years for the world to reach gender parity in the highest positions of power, the United Nations forecasts

This has implications beyond basic fairness for roughly half the world’s population. According to the CFR, women legislators are more likely to promote stability and bipartisanship. And women lawmakers are more likely to work with political opponents to pass legislation, one U.S. study found. 

While certainly not universal, the tendencies of women leaders are sorely needed in our increasingly polarized, and often legislatively paralyzed, age. 

Then there’s the issue of representation.

According to researchers at Harvard Business School, women exposed to female leaders in their chosen field are more likely to associate women with leadership and rate themselves more highly in qualities like intelligence and competence. Role models matter.

It’s not that there hasn’t been progress, much of it in my own lifetime. 

The Queen invited newly elected Conservative Leader Liz Truss to become the new U.K. prime minister days before the monarch’s passing. There are more women leaders than at the time of the Queen’s coronation in 1952, but they remain a minuscule minority. (Jane Barlow/The Associated Press)

I lived for years in B.C. with Christy Clark as premier and watched Alison Redford and then Rachel Notley come to power next door in Alberta. Since moving to Calgary, the city elected its first woman mayor in Jyoti Gondek, and Alberta seems to be poised for a political showdown between two women — the NDP’s Rachel Notley and UCP leadership front-runner Danielle Smith — in its provincial election next year. 

We are making inroads at the federal level as well. Canada is among the countries with gender parity in cabinet, and our first woman finance minister, Chrystia Freeland, improved the lives of many new moms (including me) by correctly identifying, and funding, childcare as a national issue.

Yet when it comes to the highest seats of power, the cracks in the glass ceiling remain too small for many women to slip through. Leaders like Finland’s Sanna Marin, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and Liz Truss or India’s Indira Gandhi are notable precisely because they are exceptions. Their names stand out amid male leaders too numerous to remember. 

I can still feel my heartbreak over Hilary Clinton’s defeat to Donald Trump in 2016 and the shared indignity of watching a situation so many women have experienced — losing out on a top job to a lesser-qualified man — play out on the world stage. 

Rather than rising to the highest office in greater numbers, it has instead become common to see women candidates routinely relegated to second place, or handed the seat of power in a moment of crisis.

Glass ceiling, glass cliff

I remember my mother’s dejection when Kim Campbell was edged off the glass cliff after her short tenure as Canada’s first, and only, woman prime minister in 1993. This, despite my mother never having considered herself a Conservative, which points to a more hidden impact of the leadership gender gap.

There are so few options at the highest levels that women often don’t have the opportunity to support candidates who are aligned with our political views and our need for representation. 

As a result, we are forced to do emotional labour that men are largely spared. We grapple with complicated feelings in private, parsing mixed allegiances and processing the exhausting implications of systemic inequality in quiet conversations between mothers and daughters. Or in group chats with girlfriends. 

This is precisely how I found myself confronting a surprising sense of loss this month. 

I am no monarchist, but in Queen Elizabeth II, the world had a woman in the highest seat of power for seven unheard-of decades.

What I’m mourning is the loss of that powerful symbolic influence — and the fact that 70 years wasn’t long enough to level the playing field, so that her absence wouldn’t leave such a noticeable void. 


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