Thoughts And Ideas
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Thoughts And Ideas

Justin Trudeau – Effective Feminism or Benevolent Sexism?

Justin Trudeau — Photo credit

In 2015, Justin Trudeau appointed a gender-balanced cabinet for the first time in Canadian history.

When asked why he replied,

This was generally well-received and Trudeau became a symbol for male feminism.

His vision was admirable. So why were many feminists unhappy with his approach?

A closer look at the details shows how he could’ve achieved political balance by highlighting the effectiveness of women in power.

Women in power

There is a strong relationship between the percentage of women in parliament and the happiness of a country.¹ Given the impact of policy — some causality is likely.² It clearly marks progress.

The problem is: we’re yet to realise a true meritocracy. Disadvantages facing women result in fewer opportunities. Cronyism and political trade-offs advantage those already in power. It’s clear why Trudeau wanted to disrupt the status quo.

However, before throwing out the meritocratic baby, we should understand the specifics.

Trudeau’s task was to form the most effective cabinet from the 338 elected MPs. Of these, 88 (26%), were women. This presents a problem.

To illustrate:

  1. Define competence as having the most positive impact on the country.
  2. Assume skills varied from person to person, but men and women were equally effective on average.
  3. Rank order the MPs by competence and note the 15 men and 15 women chosen. This allows us to get a feel for the effects of fixing outcomes.

So 26% were women. Close to 1 in 4:

To achieve parity — 27 men are passed over and 7 men face direct discrimination (22–30). In practice, things are more complicated, but the underlying principles apply.

Pros and cons of quotas

Objections to quotas are understandable. Fixing outcomes prevents the most effective people being hired. This carries costs for the people they serve. Less able ministers will help fewer people. As the above example shows — this doesn’t imply one group is more competent overall. It’s the effect of greater numbers.

But there are practical benefits to quotas. The added experience may balance discrimination. While unfair in isolation, it may be fairer overall. It may encourage women to run for office, leading to greater numbers of female MPs being elected in future.

It could also backfire. Support for women could decline in response to discriminatory policies. Preferential treatment may increase biases overall.

There are positives and negatives to weigh.

Meritocracy supporting bias

Some people use a meritocratic argument to justify structures that produce inequalities. Most people have positive intentions, but blind spots that favour their groups. Challenging blind spots is tricky and may lead to defensiveness. This eases if you recognise positive intentions and keep the conversation collaborative.³ Asking how they feel about cronyism, for example, may enlighten bias or outline a consistent view aligned with progress. Both can be useful.


It follows that a representational strategy should also consider race. Religion, disabilities, sexuality, gender identity etc, may also need to be considered. This poses further challenges. Each division pulls further from merit as the deciding factor.

However, without quotas, how do we seriously address the disadvantages facing minority groups?

There is an incredible post called Parable of the Polygons which shows — it only takes small amounts of anti-bias throughout societies to have major benefits.⁴

Balancing without quotas

Generally, people want to encourage participation from underrepresented groups. There are clear social and economic benefits when this is done well. Objections tend to show when there is doubt roles are assigned by merit.

Solutions that reduce bias and even disadvantages (the earlier the better) enhance a meritocracy. Guaranteed interview schemes, and use of diversity as a tie-breaker, steer towards better representation, without discriminating.

Welcoming these policies avoids the need for quotas. They’re win-win!

Returning to Trudeau’s cabinet

There is another step to consider. In the final stages of selecting by merit, there’s usually a small group of close candidates: say 14 MPs for the last 6 positions.

This would’ve been a great opportunity for anti-bias. Here he could’ve selected 4 women and 2 men, and considered intersectionality.

This holds competence as the defining factor, yet moves towards better representation.

What if the female MPs have higher average competency?

If the electorate is biased, it follows that women who are elected may be more effective on average, than their male counterparts.

In this case — after selecting by merit and using anti-bias in close cases, the cabinet may be approaching parity.

If the 15 women chosen were the most effective choices — Trudeau’s policy wasn’t needed. Highlighting competence as the defining factor would’ve been a stronger message!

The strategy should be:

  • Promote the effectiveness of women in government.¹ ²
  • Reduce public bias.
  • Increase support for women in politics.
  • Balance the elected MPs!

Then balancing the cabinet is easy. This is where long-term progress is made.

A small amount of anti-bias throughout societies will be more effective than benevolent sexism at the top.

Photo creditExplore data


¹ Happiness and Women in Parliament

² TED — The Political Progress Women Have Made

³ Research: Bringing Up Past Injustices Make Majority Groups Defensive

Parable of the Polygons — A playable post on the shape of society.



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