MONTREAL - A Quebec backbencher's swipe that his leader is unpopular because of her gender has prompted a debate in the province over whether women get a fair deal in politics.

At a time when three sitting Canadian premiers and one federal party leader are women, the comment prompted a blacklash Wednesday from politicians of various partisan stripes.

The brouhaha erupted after Claude Pinard, an outspoken Parti Quebecois legislator, said Tuesday that many Quebecers are not ready to vote for a woman -- namely his embattled boss, PQ Leader Pauline Marois.

"I believe that one of her serious handicaps is the fact she's a woman," Pinard said. "I sincerely believe that a good segment of the population won't support her because she's a woman."

Quebec female politicians called the veteran backbencher's comments outdated and said female politicians are more than ready for the political prime time.

Quebec Culture Minister Christine St-Pierre pointed to the fact that women politicians are well represented at the provincial level.

"I find that exaggerated," St-Pierre said Wednesday.

"You look at the other provinces, you have three women who are premiers."

Newfoundland and Labrador's Kathy Dunderdale won a 2011 general election, becoming just the third woman in Canadian history to lead a party to victory in a general election.

The Tories took 56 per cent of the popular vote under Dunderdale, four years after Danny Williams took 69 per cent.

The other two sitting premiers -- B.C.'s Christy Clark and Alberta's Alison Redford -- were chosen by their respective parties but have yet to face the electorate.

One political scientist says women actually have an electoral advantage.

Evidence shows that female candidates begin with a head start in voters' eyes of as much as 10 per cent, said Bruce Hicks, a researcher at Universite de Montreal.

Hicks said women are often more favourably associated by voters with issues like health care and education.

Before Elizabeth May, two other federal parties elected female leaders: Kim Campbell with the Progressive Conservatives and Audrey McLaughlin and Alexa McDonough, both with the NDP.

None was particularly successful; each saw their parties' electoral fortunes decline while they were leaders.

Campbell was briefly Canada's first -- and only -- female prime minister after she won the 1993 PC leadership race to replace Brian Mulroney. The PC party, already deeply unpopular before she arrived, suffered an unprecedented annihilation at the polls.

Campbell's share of the popular vote was 16 per cent as the party was reduced to two seats. The PCs had received a 43-per-cent share of the vote in 1988 under Mulroney, and in 1997 under Jean Charest won 20 seats and 19 per cent of the vote.

The NDP under McLaughlin and McDonough faltered in popular vote and seats. After reaching 20 per cent under Ed Broadbent, the party dropped to seven, 11 and nine per cent in the elections they ran as leaders before the party's steady climb under Jack Layton.

But Hicks said those results need to be weighed against the political climate of the time.

"The fact that you had a Mulroney era and a Chretien era is what determined federal politics," said Hicks said.

He suggested gender might pose more of a problem for Marois' colleagues than it does with the public at large.

"(Marois' issue) does reflect what has been going on for some time now: women in positions of authority have problems in terms of the way they manage authority," said Hicks, adding that sexism is nothing new in politics.

"The problem isn't them, it's the men under them who resent taking direction from strong women. And the backroom dirty dialogue can come into the public eye."

In fact, under Marois, the party performed far better in the last election than it had when it tumbled to third-party status under her predecessor Andre Boisclair.

Her polling numbers, however, have been dismal lately.

Now facing internal dissension, she has been unable to boost PQ support in opinion polls despite the various political scandals plaguing the governing Liberals.

Five members have jumped ship. There have been frequent calls for her resignation and Marois can't shake the shadow of former Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe, who is being touted as the sovereigntist saviour waiting in the wings to take over the PQ.

Pinard, 62, who has won his seat for the PQ in four out of five elections since 1994, issued his leader a public ultimatum this week. He said Marois has six months to turn around the PQ, or quit.

But Marois brushed aside his comments.

"Quebec is ready to elect a woman as premier," she declared Wednesday.

Other PQ members expressed support for her.

The PQ's Martine Ouellet, who held high-ranking positions at Hydro-Quebec before her political career, said Quebecers recognize that women have the ability to fill senior positions.

"I'm a woman, I've worked in various areas and I believe that men and women in Quebec are believed to be capable of being an elected official and a premier," Ouellet said.

"I think we're due for a woman premier... We can sometimes see things differently and I think it would be a good thing."