You’ve probably heard of women smashing glass ceilings, or breaking through barriers faced by females. But in politics there’s also increasing recognition that women may also be vulnerable to falling off what’s known as "the glass cliff."

“The glass cliff basically refers to the fact that parties are willing to choose women as leaders when they don’t really think they’ve got a chance at winning power,” said Mount Royal University’s Lori Williams.

Kim Campbell, Kathleen Wynne and Christy Clark are all examples, according to Williams. It’s a phenomenon also witnessed at the individual riding level.

“We saw women running in fewer party strongholds,” added University of Victoria lecturer Grace Lore, “so there’s a drop off in the number that were elected.”

Lore pointed out that while legislatures are electing more women, in Alberta, there was actually about a three-per-cent decline in the number of female MLAs after the provincial election Tuesday.

In her concession speech Tuesday, Rachel Notley addressed the issue directly.

“Sometimes it may feel like you're taking two steps forward and then one step back,” Notley told supporters after her defeat. “May you never ever stop taking those steps forward.”

Why representation matters

Williams doesn’t think we need to get to 50 per cent representation, but she says the fact there are no women premiers is problematic because it means half of the population of Canada doesn’t see themselves represented in the upper echelons of political life.

Williams believes having more women involved in higher levels of politics shows females that there are people who may want to do politics the way they may choose to.

Williams also noted that female political leaders tend to bring women on board for senior positions and tend to consider diversity because they come from a place of knowing what it’s like to be on the outsider. She notes while male leaders do this, it’s a more prevalent trend among women.

Lore said women tend to bring a different perspective to the table. Often they focus more on family issues like domestic violence, care for elders, and children. While she recognizes not all women leaders champion the same issues, it’s problematic that when the premiers’ meet – there will not be a single woman at the table.

Family photos from previous meetings show six women premiers in 2013, two years later, it was half that, and by 2017 just Notley remained.

“They're all gone now and there's a similar storyline to all the premieres who at one time were governing the majority of Canada,” said Lore.

That includes some significant challenges that remain to this day.

Barriers to entry

Women often bear most of the family responsibilities, according to both Williams and Lore. They say having legislatures that are more accommodating, will help women make the entry into politics.

Williams, who has studied the leadership of Notley extensively, noted a key change the NDP premier made.

“She changed the hours of the legislature to make them more family friendly,” said Williams.

Lore ran in the civic municipal race in Victoria in 2018. She said, as a woman with a young family, she had to take things like bedtime into consideration – a factor many of her opponents may not have had to contend with.

Recently, all three parties in B.C. agreed to allow MLAs to bring their babies into the chamber - a decision that was in part motivated by the need to make the people’s house more accommodating to women.

Gender-based threats

What can separate women's experience of life in the public eye from that of mens’ is threats based on gender.

Williams said her research showed women often downplayed the threats and tended to focus on the positive. The one obvious exception is Alberta’s Sandra Jansen.

The broadcaster-turned-MLA also crossed the floor from the Conservatives to the NDP. Even before that, she said she received threats and demeaning comments. The vitriol only amplified when she switched political parties.

“What a traitorous bitch. You are both a disgrace to Alberta. Lying bitches. Dead meat Sandra should stay in (the) kitchen where she belongs. Fly with the crows and get shot. Dumb broad a good place for her to be is with the rest of the queers.”

Those were just some of the comments she read aloud in the house and entered into the public record in 2016, leaving most of her fellow MLA’s stunned. Jansen said she wanted to start a conversation about the issues facing women who try to take a seat at the table.

Just want someone who is qualified

When the issue is raised about the gender gap in politics, often there’s an argument: if the most qualified person is elected, then who cares?

That’s something Lore said she’s heard over and over.

“The assumption behind that when it comes to women in politics, is that we got the most qualified people,” Lore told CTV News in Victoria. “It makes it seem like there something less qualified less interested or less able about women in politics and I don’t think that’s true.”

Are we ready?

While women face more challenges, there are efforts underway to recruit more women into politics. Whether that’s gender-balanced cabinets, ensuring more women are running in winnable seats, or in terms of change to make legislatures welcoming to a more diverse group of people.

Lore thinks the key is making sure women see themselves represented.

“It’s not because voters don’t vote for women they do. There’s no evidence that the voters discriminate at the ballot box.”

Williams, who is an Associate Professor and conducts research, recalled a time when she was approached by a senior member of Alison Redford’s team asking her if she wanted to run. While she politely declined, she said he also was quick with a comeback.

“Then immediately he said he didn’t think Albertans we’re ready for another female Premier,” Williams said. “That struck me as odd.”