Opinion: Changing the face of politics

Special to KT by Vicky Smallman

Our new city council is already off to a great start, with lively debates about governance and citizen engagement.  This bodes well for the next few years, as our local democracy is only strengthened when there are diverse perspectives and ideas around the table.

Whether there is a diversity of ideas around the table will be revealed in the coming months, especially when we get into budget discussions and as the crop of new councillors adjust to their new roles.

What we don’t have around the table is much diversity, period. It is an overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly white, table. Indeed, women are less represented in this council than in the previous one, when women represented one quarter of the council. Now there are only four women, making up just over 16 percent of our municipal government – far shy from the thirty percent the Federation of Canadian Municipalities has set as its target. All women are white, and Catherine McKenney is the first out queer woman to be elected in Ottawa’s history.

“It’s not too early to start thinking about what we want the next council to look like,” writes Hintonburg’s Vicky Smallman. Photo by Andrea Tomkins.

Even before election day, the writing was on the wall – not many women put themselves forward as candidates this year – only 17 percent, in fact.  If you don’t have a critical mass of women candidates, it’s unlikely that you’ll have a critical mass of women councillors.

So why don’t more women step up?  There’s no easy answer, no one magic solution, as women’s reasons for opting out are multiple and interconnected. Many barriers exist – from the unequal division of labour in the Canadian household, to lack of available child care in our communities, to the many negative stereotypes about politicians, to the judgmental and superficial scrutiny to which women in public life are often subjected, to the expectation that a council job means ubiquitous attendance at evening and weekend community events. Stepping up is not easy, and women (more often than men) tend to underestimate their qualifications or take a long time weighing whether or not they should run, sometimes at the expense of their own potential success.

Many women are turned off by the sexism that seems rampant in the political sphere and in the mainstream media. It’s hard to blame them.  At some point, however, the only way to change attitudes about women in politics is to have more women in politics – all kinds of women. We need younger women and older women. We need mothers and women who are caring for ailing relatives. We need women who’ve worked in all kinds of jobs and women who have worked in the home and contributed to the community in different ways. We need women who represent the ethnocultural diversity of our communities.  We need indigenous women and women living with disabilities. We need LGBTQ women.  We need women who understand the challenges of living in poverty, and who know full well the importance of all the services our city provides to the populations who rely on them the most.

The only successful new female councillor ran with the active support of the retiring incumbent. Other councillors announced their retirement late into the campaign period, without a clear succession plan. This creates barriers for potential successors, who need to build networks well in advance of mounting a successful campaign.  What would happen if councillors who planned to retire (male or female) made an effort to recruit quality women candidates, mentored them through their decision-making and offered assistance during the campaign period?   Ultimately the voters decide who the next councillor is, but councillors can play a role in getting more women to the starting line.

While 2018 may seem far away, it’s not too early to start thinking about what we want the next council to look like. And the council after that. If we want more women to run, the time to start asking them is now.  And don’t just ask – offer concrete support. Because in order to run and win, a woman needs a strong team who is willing to work hard with her and for her, to help make connections, raise money, and organize a winnable campaign. I know there are many women in this city who would make amazing city councillors, and our local government will be even stronger if we all make an effort to get them ready to run.

Vicky Smallman is a Hintonburg resident with an interest in municipal politics and women’s equality.




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