Changing the Shape of the Table

Women in Canadian municipal politics

by Melissa Wilk

In a large urban municipality in Southern Ontario, a female councillor—a fresh six months into her term—was asked to meet with the mayor. The mayor sat her down and said that it was his duty to provide her with a report card on her performance. He gave her a failing grade.

Joan Lougheed has heard it all before. Lougheed spent 15 years in municipal office listening to many such tales of women in municipal politics. Lougheed was recently elected the mayor of Deep River, Ont. in 2014 with 84 per cent of the vote.

Lougheed, who was a councillor in Burlington, Ont., and also worked for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) for nine years, started her career in nursing and palliative care. She also started her own business, Educare, that focuses on providing education and skills enhancement for healthcare professionals.

Lougheed says she’s heard from women who have been drawn to tears, harassed in the council chamber and even subtly abused in municipal offices. “I’ve heard tragic accounts from across the country from women experiencing hardship in their political positions,” says Lougheed. The woman above is just one of them.

Clearly, barriers and challenges still exist for elected women, which might explain why only 22 per cent of all Canadian municipal government leaders, including mayors and councillors, are women.

According to the United Nations (UN), 30 per cent female representation is the critical mass required in a government body for the system to reflect women’s issues sufficiently. Canada’s 22 per cent is significantly lower than some countries in Africa and Latin America, some of which have garnered a high level of respect for having women adequately represented in many of their municipalities.

Often, women who run for municipal office also hold positions in the nonprofit sector, on school boards, or in other city led organizations prior to announcing their candidacy. However, women in these roles don’t always consider politics as a potential career.

Lougheed had never considered running for city council. But she was interested in how changes in the workplace and the community could improve the health of patients. “A lot of people commented that I was leaving behind my nursing career – I just saw it as an opportunity to help change and shape communities. I had the support of my community behind me,” says Lougheed.

When Lougheed began working for FCM, she realized that her biggest challenge was after the election. Many of the organizations that helped her throughout her campaigns did not stay with her.

“Many of the women’s organizations that were delighted to have a women running and have a woman that they felt confident in, didn’t stay with me after I was elected,” says Lougheed.

Lougheed says she’s heard from other women in elected office that the networks they built during the election process were not always a continuum. “I needed help and support after I was elected, and that is probably the same for other women too,” says Lougheed.

Through her work with FCM, Lougheed heard stories of women who were forced to take their concerns and issues to male councillors, because otherwise their ideas were not valued. “I’ve seen places where women were sent down the hall and two flights of stairs to a washroom, whereas the men had a washroom right off the council chambers—it’s as basic as that.”

She says it’s not about criticizing or diminishing the work of men: “It’s about bringing everyone together, building a stronger team, understanding each other, and valuing experience. We all experience community in a different way. Everyone’s voice and experiences are important.”

In 2004, FCM approached the issue of women’s involvement in municipal government by commissioning a report entitled Increasing Women’s Participation in Municipal Decision-Making, which highlighted the problems and concerns of women in local government. FCM worked with Equal Voice, a national nonpartisan organization that is dedicated to getting more women into elected office, and Status of Women, a federal government organization that promotes equality for women, to evaluate women’s roles in municipal government.

In Canada, women’s representation at the municipal level is comparable across provinces. In 2015, 23 per cent of the mayors in Alberta were women; in British Columbia, 28 per cent of the mayors are women; in Ontario, 17 per cent. In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the number of women who are mayors are 10 per cent and 13 per cent, respectively.

“When FCM first approached this issue, there was a lot of resistance. Knowing that we are still working on women’s issues and highlighting the importance of having good people in elected office is more important today than it has ever been before,” says Lougheed.

She says it’s not always about changing the size of the table, it’s about changing the shape of the table. “It’s about having good people in decision-making roles. We make better decisions when we have a diverse council and being inclusive improves the quality of life in the community.”

The issue presents itself at the bargaining table: few women are running for office in municipal elections. In Alberta alone, women comprised 24.6 per cent of candidates in 2007, 25.3 per cent in 2010 and 27 per cent in 2013, according to a report by Angelia Wagner, a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Alberta.

Based on FCM’s current numbers, to achieve adequate representation of women by the UN’s minimum, Canada would have to elect 1,408 more women into municipal offices. Organizations such as the Women’s Advocacy Voice of Edmonton Committee (WAVE) are working to help encourage more women to make this happen.

WAVE focuses on women’s engagement as a continuum, and also helps women build strong campaign teams for their candidacy. It currently runs the “Opening the Potential: Women Leading in Edmonton” which has over fifty women taking part. The program consists of eight three-hour evening sessions from September until April.

Kaylin Betteridge, the women’s initiative coordinator at WAVE, says that cities need to encourage more women to run in municipal elections — but also to be involved in campaign planning and fundraising.

Betteridge says that women do not necessarily see themselves represented in municipal politics: “It is not something that comes to mind for women who are exploring career choices. One of the big things that gets women running is having people ask them.”

“Women still tend to do the bulk of the household labour and child care – so the idea can seem overwhelming. We don’t really put this pressure on men in the same way,” she says.

Another issue is campaign financing — here is where the wage gap rears its ugly head. According to a 2015 Parkland Institute report, full-time working women earn about 37 per cent less per year than men, making Alberta the province with the largest wage gap in Canada. “Many developers will fund men and women, but they will give less to the women,” says Betteridge.

She also mentioned that the media treats women who are running differently than men. People will pay attention to what a candidate is wearing and whether she has kids, which might make it less appealing for women to run.

“There are different expectations around how people conduct themselves – leadership styles are interpreted differently; a man can be seen as a strong leader, and that’s not necessarily the way a women will be seen even if she leads in the same way,” says Betteridge.

In 2014, a Hewlett Packard (HP) internal report showed that men apply for a job when they meet only 60 per cent of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100 per cent of them. Betteridge cited the HP report, and said that often women are hesitant to run for office unless they feel they meet all of the qualifications completely.

“Research shows that gender-balanced councils are more productive and represent the community better. It is going to take long-term systemic change to switch the gender imbalance in municipal politics,” said Betteridge.

Halena Seiferling, a past researcher with FCM, and a Simon Fraser graduate with a master’s in public policy, completed her thesis on barriers for women in municipal government.

“There’s been studies that tell us women spend 10 per cent more on their campaign than men do at the municipal level. This accounts for things like child care, but also things like having to do more advertising or more outreach in order to overcome the perception that they aren’t a good candidate,” says Seiferling.

She also agrees that media scrutiny is still an issue. “A lot of the women that I interviewed for my thesis work would talk about how in every article that’s written about them, something was mentioned about their appearance.”

Seiferling says that there is also a common perception that these barriers don’t apply at the municipal level: “My research showed that a lot of women are still facing these barriers, even in municipal politics. Furthermore, people tend to think that these are issues that remain in the political realm. I think these barriers exist for women in all workplaces, and one of them is politics.”

The 2011 UN General Assembly resolution on women’s political participation notes that “women in every part of the world continue to be largely marginalized from the political sphere, often as a result of discriminatory laws, practices, attitudes, and gender stereotypes.”

Bev Esslinger, who is currently the only female councillor in Edmonton says that she’s fielded comments on what she looks like and been questioned for why she was running, but she just “ignores it all.” Esslinger was encouraged to run in the 2013 municipal election by former Ward 2 councillor, Kim Krushell, who Esslinger had worked with when she was a school board trustee.

“I think women don’t generally think about politics as a potential career. I think you can see that even in Edmonton, a lot of women are working for non-for-profits, but they aren’t thinking of running for politics. They don’t think they can, but they are certainly able,” says Esslinger.

Esslinger also says that women tend to have a harder time fundraising for their campaigns, and that the time commitment also might be a deterrent for women who are considering running for office. “I get asked all the time how I juggle everything,” she says.

Esslinger believes that the council should reflect the city—in Edmonton, 50 per cent of all citizens are women. She says it would be beneficial for more women to be in municipal roles. “I want to be elected because I’m the best candidate. I think the skills and the perspective I bring are different,” Esslinger says.

Esslinger thinks that too many women underestimate their value or think that they can’t do the job. “Women shouldn’t underestimate themselves when they run for office,” she says.

Miranda Jimmy, who went through WAVE’s “Opening the Potential” program several years ago, is running in Edmonton’s fall 2017 election for Ward 5. She thinks that the current city council doesn’t have a good diversity of voices on it.

“Culturally and ethnically, there’s not a lot of diversity. I feel like our council should be more representative of the people who live here,” says Jimmy.

Jimmy, whose background is the nonprofit sector,  says that women have a hard time raising funds for elections compared to men. “I’m not sure if that has to do with the willingness to go out there and ask for money, or if it has to do with having connections to people who have money,” she says.

“Gender is just one of those easy and obvious ways to battle diversity, but it’s also age and stage of life, ethnicity, language, and experience – all of those add to the diversity of a council and all of those strengthen the council to make good decisions,” says Jimmy.

FCM’s Standing Committee on Increasing Women’s Participation in Municipal Government, which Lougheed was highly involved with, has a goal to hit the 30 per cent critical mass set out by the UN by 2026 – they, and other organizations across Canada are helping encourage more women such as Miranda Jimmy run for municipal office in the coming municipal elections.

According to FCM, the more women who become involved in municipal politics, the more women will become involved in all levels of politics – it is also the path to reducing the barriers for women in all workplaces and fields.

When Justin Trudeau was asked about why he made the decision to make Canada’s cabinet completely gender balanced government with 15 men and 15 women, he merely responded, “because it’s 2015.”


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