Being on the ballot
Mentors, social change key to getting women in office
By: Kevin Ma
| Posted: Wednesday, Sep 04, 2013 03:15 pm
Karen Shaw knows well the walls women face when they move into politics.
One of them, she recalls, was a cranky old man she met while door-knocking during her first run for Sturgeon County council. “You’re a woman,” he said. “You tell me why I should get a new broom when the old broom works good!”
Shaw says she looked at him with a very straight face and said, “Sir, I’m a Swiffer!” The man laughed, and said she had his vote.
It’s 2013, and Canada still has a long way to go when it comes to having women in politics. Despite making up half the nation’s population, just 21 per cent of Canada’s municipal leaders are women, notes the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.
Rwanda, meanwhile, is up around 49 per cent, notes St. Albert Mayor Nolan Crouse. Sweden is at 47. “Why is Canada flat at 21 per cent for the better part of 50 years?”
Crouse, Legal Mayor Lisa Magera and Morinville Coun. Lisa Holmes held a forum last Wednesday to find out. About 35 local leaders and electoral candidates came to Morinville’s Community Cultural Centre for the Be On the Ballot seminar on women in municipal politics. The forum discussed common issues for first-time candidates in elections, especially women, and how to address them.
Women face many obstacles when getting into politics, reports the Association of Manitoba Municipalities, including finances, lower public profiles and a lack of mentors.
Child-care is another, says Maureen Kubinec, MLA for Barrhead-Morinville-Westlock and a panellist at the seminar. Politics is a lot of work, and many people don’t have relations that can take care of the kids while they’re at the office. “I would not have been doing this kind of work at this level when my children were young.”
Another is sexism. Women are held to different standards than men in politics, says Shaw, a panellist. She recalls one forum where an audience member criticized her for wearing too short of a skirt. “Are you kidding me? We’re talking issues here and that’s all you focus on?”
While men can get away with T-shirts and shorts in office, Shaw says, women cannot. “Is it bad? No, it’s just different.”
You have to dress the part, Kubinec says, which means being a little bit dressier than the rest of the room at all times.
There are social factors as well. Male reporters often focus on the appearance of female candidates, says Crouse, citing numerous studies, while female ones often prefer to interview female candidates.
“I have a theory that like migrates to like,” he says. Today’s power-brokers are usually older men (like himself, he notes), and they subconsciously recruit people of the same mindset, appearance and gender to themselves. Leaders claim to be recruiting the best candidates, but they’re really recruiting the best candidates that look like them.
You don’t want everyone in government to be of the same gender, age or background, Kubinec says, because that leads to group-think. “You want diversity.”
Leaders, especially male ones, need to publicize this gender imbalance and make a conscious effort to recruit and mentor female candidates, Crouse says. “Women will not get elected if their names are not on the ballot,” he says. Once they are elected, however, research suggests they have the same odds of re-election as men.
Women are now the majority on many school boards, notes former Catholic board trustee and panellist Lauri-Ann Turnbull, instead of the minority as they were 20 years ago, and she suspects this trend will spread to other levels of government. “The more that people see women in those positions, the more women will step forward.”
Once elected, Shaw says, you have to take your job seriously. Read everything you can, armed to the teeth with facts, and speak with passion, not emotion.
“Being a women, you cannot show any emotion whatsoever,” Shaw says. “If you show emotion, they will attack you like a dog on a bone.”
The most important step to being an effective politician, Kubinec says, is to treat others with respect. “If you are respectful, kind, and honest, that is what you can hope to get back.”