Last Friday, the political science department and pre-law association hosted a “Women in Law” panel discussion at UTM. The event featured guest speakers Erin Tolley, professor of political science at UTM, and members of parliament Iqra Khalid and Ruby Sahota. Each of the guest speakers led discussions on a variety of topics pertaining to how race, ethnicity, and gender is figured in terms of politics and law.

Their discussion addressed issues ranging from representations of candidates or members of parliament that are women, how women in positions of authority are criticized, to issues about raising a family with a demanding job, and how to get more women engaged in politics by deconstructing the notion that politics is primarily a “male-dominated” field.

When asked about her research concerning the media’s coverage of racialized women in parliament, Tolley noted that the media tends to cover white and racialized candidates differently. In particular, Tolley explains that with racialized candidates there is a prominent focus on demographic background to the point of exoticization, questioning their status as Canadians, and downplaying the candidate’s credentials. Tolley distinguishes between the two ways that racialized women and the way racialized men tend to be portrayed, “One is in this sort of exoticized type and the other fits with the angry type. With racialized men, however, you tend to see a link of them with violence.”

With the intersectionality of identities as both a woman and a person of colour, MP Khalid notes, “Women, especially with the intersectionality there, in particular, minority women deal a lot with hate speech. These things are very normal. I think we need to do more with respect to cyberbullying and how social media is used as a platform for the exchange of ideas. Also its role in freedom of speech versus where do you draw the line to what stops becoming your freedom of speech and starts infringing on somebody else’s right for safety and security.”

However, women of parliament aren’t the only ones being targeted. Minority men, in particular, the LGBTQ members of parliament are also targeted the same way. “This isn’t really a competition about who faces this the most. Really, it’s about how the way we receive it is inherently different than the ways our male counterparts receive it,” remarks MP Khalid.

Women in positions of authority, or just in general, are always aware of the ways that people gaze at them. Tolley notes that when it comes to female professors, in particular, they become acutely aware of the expectations that students place on them: “One thing you realize as a woman professor is how students interact with you. It really comes to light when you get your course evaluations back at the end of the year and read the comments that students write to you. And there are definitely comments that female professors get that male professors just don’t get.”

MP Khalid shares that as a female member of parliament individuals react or take things more personally when she is in a position of authority. “I was in court and I was ready to run a trial. It was actually the first trial I had ever run by myself without any supervision or guidance.”

“And I was up against a very experienced member of council. So, I had spent the past couple of weeks just really preparing because I knew I was up against a really tough opponent. We went through the trial and I was objecting to everything he said until he mocked me in front of the judge,” MP Khalid recalls, “Ultimately, I did win that trial. I learned a very important lesson that day: that neither your appearance nor your gender speak for who you are.”

For women in positions of authority, gender norms, primarily about motherhood and raising a family, are raised as claims to support why a woman can’t work and want to raise a family. “There were a lot of people that didn’t think this was the role or position suited to me at the time,” MP Sahota recalls, “The idea that we need to distil is that a certain job is for a certain person at a certain age and for a certain gender.”

An effective way of combating this idea is to get more minorities engaged in politics, especially women. Politics is typically viewed as a “male-dominated” field but with more minorities engaging in politics and running in elections, it’s becoming less “male-dominated.” There is still a need, however, for more minorities like women to get engaged in politics and recognize that, Tolley states, “Who’s sitting at the decision table really does matter.”

Equal Voice is an organization concerned with addressing these issues by empowering women to get more involved in politics and become civically engaged. “Just know,” MP Khalid asserts, “that we have come a really long way but also know that we have a long way to go and your contribution is really needed to get us there.”