Originally published in the Globe and Mail on October 1, 2021.
If you’re being pushed off the glass cliff by your own team, you cannot really break the glass ceiling.
And so it was that, on Sept. 27, Annamie Paul gave a mic-drop speech that didn’t mince words about why she was resigning as the leader of the federal Green Party after just under a year. She said that on the morning of the election, before the votes had even been counted, she received an e-mail from the president of the party’s Federal Council calling for an emergency meeting to launch a leadership review; that review was officially announced just four days after election night. She also charged that the party had not provided her funding, campaign staff, nor a national campaign manager. She talked about the pain of the “political games” inside her own party, which led to, as Ms. Paul described it, “the worst period of my life, in many respects.”
This amounts to the undermining of Black leadership – and it remains, too often, the experience of Black female leaders.
According to a study by Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute of boards of directors in five sectors in eight Canadian cities, Black people represent 5.6 per cent of the population, but only 2 per cent of the board positions overall. A survey by the Prosperity Project found that “roughly 90 per cent of companies still have no Black or Indigenous women in roles reporting directly to executives, a measure of those in the running for future leadership positions.” And so while the rise of a Black and Jewish woman to the top of a federal political party would seem to be a good thing amidst such disappointing numbers, the focus can’t end once they’ve arrived – it’s just as important to observe what happens afterward.
In 2018, the Centre for Community Organizations (COCo) published the “‘Problem’ Woman of Colour in the Workplace” tool, which diagrammed what happens when a woman of colour joins a non-profit where the staff or leadership is predominantly white. The trajectory described looks awfully similar to what Ms. Paul has experienced.
First, there is the honeymoon period, they write. But soon, “the hire is experienced as tokenism.” In the case of Ms. Paul, she joined an organization dealing with “systemic racism at the governance level of the party, which needs to be, but is not being, addressed,” according to an internal Green Party committee report leaked this summer. So while party officials knew about the problem, they chose to do nothing, seemingly content to use Ms. Paul to symbolize that there were no issues around misogyny, racism or anti-Semitism.
This is the “glass cliff.” “Women are elevated to positions of power when things are going poorly,” Emily Stewart wrote in a piece for Vox. “When they reach the upper ranks of power, they’re put into precarious positions and therefore have a higher likelihood of failure, meaning there’s a greater risk for them to fall.” Ms. Paul herself described this experience in her resignation speech: “When I was elected … I was breaking a glass ceiling. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was breaking a glass ceiling that was going to fall on my head and leave a lot of shards of glass that I was going to have to crawl over throughout my time as a leader.”
These kinds of dynamics are further complicated when a female woman of colour tries to fix diversity problems within the organization. Often, she is viewed as not being a good fit, and her performance is questioned. Furthermore, in COCo’s assessment “she is then targeted and attacked by the organization by both formal and informal mechanisms (comments by co-workers, HR practices). In response to these experiences, the racialized woman leaves the organization.” Those kinds of mechanisms cropped up over the summer, including highly public infighting over an advisor to Ms. Paul who vowed to unseat Green MPs who weren’t Zionist, which led to the Federal Council to threaten a leadership review, even as pundits predicted that an election call was coming soon. In doing so, party officials set their leader up to fail against already long odds.
There will be those who insist that race wasn’t a factor in the Green Party’s marginalization of Annamie Paul. But of course race is a factor when the first Black woman to lead a federal party doesn’t actually get a real chance to lead over a short term, and is instead bogged down by internal attacks, leadership questions and a lack of support that wasn’t evident before she arrived. This is misogynoir – and it’s the status quo in our political structures.
Erica Ifill is an economist, columnist, and founder of the equity and inclusion consultancy Not In My Colour.