Women in Charge

Alberta is no longer just a man’s world

By Miranda Martini

A friend who works in TV production told me recently about the hiring process that led to her current job. Although she was abundantly eligible for a well-publicized open position on a new show, every other remotely qualified person in her area of expertise—and a few less-than-qualified ones—received a call about the position before she did. By the time the hiring committee finally came to its senses and gave her a call, she was the last possible option, and they approached her with extreme caution. She would be one of only a handful of women to hold that position in Calgary, and the first to be hired full time. To the committee, the thought of allowing a woman into that environment was, if not downright unthinkable, at least something of a puzzle.

“We’re sorry,” the committee members told my friend after they agreed to take her on. “We’re just not really sure how this works.”

So go the tentative first steps of women into any male-dominated field. A similar sentiment emerged during Alberta’s provincial election last spring. In the run-up, only a few incidents marred the generally above-board conversation surrounding party leaders Alison Redford and Danielle Smith as they vied for voters’ support. Amanda Wilkie, an assistant in Redford’s Calgary office, tweeted that Smith’s childlessness reflected poorly on the Wildrose’s three-part pledge to Alberta families: “If @ElectDanielle likes young and growing families so much, why doesn’t she have children of her own? #wrp family pack = insincere.” The next day, after a flurry of Twitter activity about the comment, Smith responded with a statement about her private struggle with infertility. Redford immediately called Smith to apologize, “woman to woman.” Wilkie resigned shortly afterward.

“This is not a question that would have come up if the two front-runners weren’t women. It wouldn’t even have come up in a mixed-gender race,” says Jane Arscott, co-author of Still Counting: Women in Politics across Canada. “The public isn’t used to having so many women leading parties… [this] just reflects the general discomfort the public has with the newness of the situation. They’ll get used to it.”

If the notion of electing a woman premier in Alberta still causes some “general discomfort,” however, the presence of women in Alberta politics certainly doesn’t. Alberta provided Canada with many of its first women in public life: Louise McKinney, of the Famous Five, served as an MLA in Alberta for four years and was the first woman elected to a legislature in the British Empire; Irene Parlby, also of the Famous Five, became the first female cabinet minister in Alberta, in 1921. According to Sylvia Bashevkin, professor of political science at the University of Toronto and author of several texts on women in Canadian politics, this shouldn’t surprise us: these early victories are “consistent with an international trend that saw women’s rights move forward far more rapidly in frontier environments than in traditional societies.”

The notion of the harsh prairie environment seeping into our politics makes for a fun embellishment to the Alberta mythology, at least for me. It’s appealing to think that in our younger days we perhaps lacked the urban reverence for the gentleman’s world of politics, allowing Rosie the Riveter types to roll up their sleeves and get the job done. Alberta isn’t all small towns and dusty range roads anymore, though. When I last lived in Calgary, cash was king and the arts were out of fashion. It seems trite and naive to assume that having a woman as premier is likely to revolutionize the political or cultural landscape of Alberta; after all, politics is, in Ralph Klein’s words, “a young man’s game,” and Alberta more than any other province seems to have an almost pathological resistance to change—or so it always seemed to me growing up here in the 1990s and early 2000s, watching election seasons come and go without many people raising an eyebrow. Since then, two women have taken the reins in Alberta’s legislature. The presidents of the province’s two largest universities are both women. So is the artistic director of Alberta Theatre Projects. Women such as Dawn Farrell, president and CEO of TransAlta, are getting the nod for top jobs in the lucrative, high-profile energy sector. It’s a good time to be hopeful. But it is important to remain alert to what this hope might actually mean. Having just returned to Alberta for work myself, I spoke to three women at the top of, or approaching the top of, their fields—Mélanie Léonard, the associate conductor of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra; Sherri Brillon, executive VP and CFO of Encana Corp.; and Danielle Smith, leader of the Official Opposition—in the hopes of answering a question at the front of my mind: Has Alberta changed for women as much as it appears to have changed?

While she waits to have her picture taken, Mélanie Léonard fusses over details of her hair and wardrobe, tying and untying her hair and running off to put on lipstick. She has brought a few props of her trade with her to the photo shoot. “Every conductor has a picture like this,” she says, striking a sudden pose with her conducting baton resting archly across her chest. It looks unnatural, and she drops the prop with a shrug. “I’m not most conductors,” she adds.

She’s not wrong—one of only a handful of female conductors in Canada and an even smaller number of Canadian women working for orchestras in the country (Tania Miller, director of the Victoria Symphony Orchestra, was the first Canadian woman to be appointed to such a senior conducting position in Canada back in 2002), Léonard stands out even before one takes into account the dynamic podium style that has her so in demand as a guest conductor at orchestras and festivals across the country. Mentored by men throughout her education, Léonard doesn’t seem fazed by the lack of female role models in her field: “One of my teachers once said, when you’re on the podium, it’s not about being a man or a woman—you’re a musician and you’re there for music.”

Recently bumped up from resident conductor at the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra to the more permanent job of associate conductor, however, Léonard does face challenges as a woman in a male-dominated field—challenges that have nothing to do with contemptuous colleagues or comments whispered around the water cooler. Surprisingly, it’s the spotlight associated with subverting the dominant paradigm that makes Léonard squirm; she feels the weight of the public expecting her to champion women’s rights, a politicized pigeonhole that she resists.

“I don’t want to be a lonely leader. I don’t want to be telling people what to do; I want to be a leader who will inspire them to join me in realizing the ideas that I have.” —Mélanie Léonard, resident conductor at the CPO

Nonetheless, she sees herself as a leader for women, and she inhabits the role with effortless confidence, not concerning herself with performing a false femininity or masculinity to her audience or colleagues. “There’s no way I can dissociate myself from myself,” she says. “I don’t want to be a lonely leader; I don’t want to be telling people what to do. I want to be a leader who will inspire them to join me in realizing the ideas I have. I am a woman in a field that doesn’t have many women, but I’m not trying to be something; I just want to be what I am.”

For Sherri Brillon, leadership comes with more pressure to posture. But when her team goes for a drink while travelling for work, Brillon says she often orders a tea at the bar, something she assures me one seldom sees men in her field do. “I’m not a person that goes for a drink with the guys after work; I’ve never been that person. So if I don’t feel like going for a drink, I’ll have whatever I want to have. I’m too far gone now,” she says, laughing. “This is just the way I am.”

When asked if the energy sector could do more to bring in women, her response is an immediate and decisive yes—although she notes that conditions have improved immeasurably since she began in the industry in the 1980s. She rates those days as a step not far past Mad Men: “They still had girly pictures on the walls and things like that.” But enlightened as today’s energy sector is by comparison, the stagnating number of women in the field suggests work remains. “Sometimes I think the women have left,” she says. “They’ve gone to have their families or they’ve decided that they don’t see opportunity; they launch something on their own and become more entrepreneurial.”

The first problem—the exodus of women of a certain age to start or care for families at the expense of career advancement—is, and has been, the subject of a much longer discussion. The second problem—that women don’t see opportunities for advancement—is arguably the more troubling of the two, but Brillon hopes this trend is already reversing by strides. Over the last several years, Encanahas formed a women’s network to identify mentoring and sponsorship opportunities, allowing women to network across the organization.

Brillon also hopes to influence her own corner of the world through her leadership, a task that requires deliberation and frequently a good deal of courage. She often finds herself battling the assumptions that abound in a male-dominated workplace, however well-meaning—for instance, that women with young families won’t be interested in demanding positions. As one of the few women in a position to weigh in on hiring decisions, she advocates for interviewing candidates rather than making conclusions on their behalf. Although Brillon thinks that her 17-year-old daughter would cite this as proof positive that her mother is a feminist, Brillon herself doesn’t see the correlation: “I just think that’s doing the right thing.”

This unwavering loyalty to “doing the right thing” by her co-workers is the keystone of Brillon’s leadership. It’s difficult to say whether this tendency toward the collaborative is an attribute she has cultivated as a woman or just the by-product of hard-won experience, but she refers to herself as an “influencer,” and of her many accomplishments, it’s her legacy of setting others up for success that she most values. “Most of my team I’ve had for a very long time, so there’s a personal connection and a loyalty that we’ve built, and it’s mutual,” she says. “What makes me feel good is I’ve given them opportunities and they’ve risen to the occasion.”

One might think that after the whirlwind of the past three years, running first for leadership of the Wildrose party and then in the 2012 provincial election, Danielle Smith would be glad for a few years’ break from public debates and election promises, but she talks about campaigns in the same wistful tone another person would use for summer camp. “They’re awesome,” she explains. “You
meet such interesting people, you talk about issues, the public cares, the media cares; everybody’s focused for those four weeks on making a very important decision, and then, postelection,
everything kind of goes into a lull.”

This ought not to have surprised me; it makes perfect sense that Smith, no stranger to competition and controversy, would thrive on the high-octane atmosphere of election season. Her political language is peppered with sports and military metaphors, and she has much to say on the subject of children’s sports leagues that don’t keep score. “Kids know—we scored 12, they scored 10,” she says. “Everybody keeps a tally. I don’t think you can shield children from the lessons that they’re supposed to learn through sports. You have to work hard; you win some, you lose some; if you lose, you pick yourself up and you go play again, and maybe next year you’ll beat the guys.”

The same parlance of “beating the guys” applies to her views on women in the workforce. Smith doesn’t identify as a feminist, because, she feels, “they seem to want big national solutions and then big provincial solutions, and then only as a last resort do they look to individuals, families and communities.”

However, she’s delighted by the recent gains made by women in provincial politics, and suggests that fixed election dates would make it even easier for the primary caregivers (often women) of young children and aged parents to plan their schedules around a campaign: “When I was trying to recruit candidates last time I ran, I was telling people, ‘Well, we could have an election any time between 2011 and 2013, so would you like to put your name forward and potentially be a candidate for as long as three years?’ ” She points out that it’s traditionally been easier to draw women into local politics, not only because it means less of a commitment to being away from home frequently but also because it’s easier to plan one’s life around a date that remains the same every year.

There’s considerable support for this theory. In her essay “More Than Just Cowboys with White Hats: A Demographic Profile of Edmonton and Calgary,” Shannon Sampert points out that municipal politics don’t typically involve a party system, which means that “women candidates do not face the additional hurdle of having to win a party nomination before running for city council.”

Additionally, the financial burden of running a campaign is less for local positions than it is for federal or provincial positions.

Smith also references the “hurt feelings” associated with running for political office as a possible reason many women shy away from it. “Women tend to try to get along, tend to try for consensus,” she says. “You have to be able to read the nasty letters to the editor that are written about you without it impacting your ability to get up in the morning and do your job. You have to be able to take a punch and to give a punch, too. I’m not naive enough to think that politics needs to become nicer.”

If politics can’t be nicer, it can perhaps learn to be civil. Although it’s much too early to characterize it as a sea change in legislative culture, the behaviour of Smith and Redford in their first few months of working together challenges Smith’s grim characterization of the tone of Alberta’s legislature. In commenting on the recent elections of women to public office in Alberta, Arscott observes that Redford and Smith have both adhered to principles of mutual respect, fairness and decency in their dealings with one another and their peers. “I think they understand that, at some level, they are interested in some of the same things, which are the public good and equality for women,” she says. “It may not be as much as many of us would like to see, but they’re doing something.”

I am indebted to my friends’ new bosses in television for their astute phrasing. We, as a province, are experiencing an awkward period, figuring out how this influx of women into Alberta’s leadership is going to work. We make a lot of mistakes and we have a long way to go: in Canada’s parliament, representation of women has plateaued at about 20–25 per cent, and while a record number of women (23) were elected to the Alberta legislature in 2012, they represent but 26 per cent of the seats. The UN identifies 30 per cent representation as necessary for a minority voice to be heard in government. At last count in 2011, the average hourly wage of women in Alberta was $5.48 lower than that of men, and there are still industries, such as utilities and the naturaland applied sciences, where women are underrepresented or barely represented at all.

Part of the problem, as Sherri Brillon demonstrates, is that men make most of the hiring decisions in the upper echelons of many industries. A recent Slate article on Apple’s all-male, all-white executive team commented that while every company will swear up and down to hiring at the executive level based on qualifications alone, and mean it, “If you start with an all-male team of senior executives in an industry that’s dominated by men, then like magic nine times out of 10—if not 99 times out of 100—you’re going to discover that the best possible candidate just so happens to be a man.”

One thing is certain: between 2001 and 2011 the number of employed women in Alberta with university degrees increased by 71.2 per cent. Whatever concrete steps we might take, in five years a new generation of women will be graduating from conducting programs, engineering programs, political science programs. In Alberta those women will have been watching very carefully as remarkable women have set precedents for success and leadership. And in 10 years those women will come of age and render the same service to the next generation of leaders.

Calgary-born-and-raised Miranda Martini graduated from UBC in 2012.


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