Are Canada’s highest officials honouring honorifics?

June 28, 2016

Bachelor of Communication Studies students find gender bias in PM speeches

Four students in their fourth year Advanced Research Methods jumped at the chance when Peter Malachy Ryan, an instructional designer in the eLearning Office and faculty member in the Bachelor of Communication Studies program, offered their course access to conduct guided research on a searchable database of prime ministerial speeches he had been building.

Scott Archer, Jamie Malbeuf, Taylor Merkley and Amanda Seymour-Skinner focused in on the 59 speeches Stephen Harper delivered in 2015, mining them for trends and themes. One that quickly emerged was gender bias.

“ We noticed a big disparity in the number of times women were mentioned as compared to men.” Amanda Seymour-Skinner  

“We looked at the people who were mentioned in the speeches and the way in which they were mentioned,” explains Amanda. “Then we worked on quantifying that information and searching for patterns.”

After much reading, research and quantitative analysis, the foursome made some interesting discoveries.

“We noticed a big disparity in the number of times women were mentioned as compared to men,” says Amanda. “We also found that when women were mentioned, it was often in a different context—mostly for their marital connection with men who were the focus of the speech.”

That wasn’t the only difference. Men, it turns out, were acknowledged more often and with a broader range of titles and honorifics (salutations, honorary and academic titles) in the speeches than women were.

After completing their content analysis, the students wrote a paper and were invited by Peter to present a summary of their findings as part of his session at the 2016 Canadian Communication Association annual conference during the Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences in Calgary at the end of May.

“I was so impressed with their decision to explore the angle of gender bias—it’s a great example of how the information in this database can be used,” says Peter, who is in the process of developing the database, which includes speeches from Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, Stephen Harper and now Justin Trudeau. The database is available to researchers across Canada, and will be openly published online in early 2017.

“I never imagined being so interested in Stephen Harper’s speeches,” says Jamie, with a smile. “Not only was it exciting to be able to look at real data in an in-depth and interesting way, it was also fulfilling to contribute to something much bigger than a class assignment and then present our findings at a conference. It’s something I never imagined having the opportunity to do as part of my undergraduate degree.”

Jamie adds that this project has inspired the students to continue their work. “We would like to have our paper published, and perhaps expand on the work we’ve already done by analyzing Justin Trudeau’s speeches as well.”

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