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Women face barriers but they can be overcome

Past leaders speak on how to get gender balance in government

By: Kevin Ma

  |  Posted: Saturday, Jan 25, 2014 06:00 am

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Busy lives may be keeping local women from taking a run at civic office, say two former city councillors.

St. Albert Mayor Nolan Crouse released a report this week about women in municipal politics.

The report found that, despite a very slight rise in their number in the last three municipal elections, women still made up just a quarter of all electoral candidates and electoral winners in Alberta.

Just 20 per cent of the candidates in St. Albert’s last three civic elections were women, the report found. About 19 per cent of the winners were female.

Women were the minority on St. Albert council prior to the 1990s, and completely absent prior to the 1970s.

Myrna Fyfe broke that trend when she became St. Albert’s first female alderman in 1973. She was joined on council by Margaret Smith in 1974.

Council has had one or two female members since 1974, except for the period between 1992 and 1998, when councillors Margaret Plain, Penny Reeves and Carol Watamaniuk and then-mayor Anita Ratchinsky made up the majority of council.

This was likely a coincidence, Reeves said: all four candidates were very active in the community, which was likely the main reason they won their seats.

Plain agreed, and said her gender was not a factor at the ballot box or in the council chambers.

“There were never any cutesy remarks made,” she said. “You went there, you did your job, and that was it.”

A candidate’s gender was much less important than a candidate’s community involvement when it came to getting votes, she added.

The report Crouse commissioned found that women stood roughly the same chance as men of winning an election if they ran, suggesting that voters were not discriminating against female candidates. Instead, it found that the shortage of women councillors was likely due to a shortage of women running in elections.

Time was likely the biggest deterrent when it came to women running for office, Plain and Reeves said.

It can be tough for young, often working mothers to get into politics if they don’t have someone to help raise the kids, Plain said.

“They have to decide if it’s worth their time and if they have the time to do it.”

Plain said none of her fellow women councillors had young children while in office. She herself waited until her kids were in their teens before making her run.

People are also less interested in volunteerism nowadays, Reeves added.

“I think it’s sad that the numbers are dwindling.”

Plain said she doesn’t think it is any tougher to get onto council now than it was when she ran for office. The advent of digital media means you might have to put more hours into the job to keep up, though.

Plain gave affirmative action plans a thumbs-down as a solution, as such programs create a risk of tokenism and take away from a candidate’s accomplishments.

Recruitment could help.

“I think a challenge should go out to all women to try and encourage other women to run,” Reeves said, especially those with strong leadership skills.

Some may be intimidated or think they don’t have the education for public office, “but it’s nothing you can’t learn.”

Anyone who does run, regardless of their gender, has to put her heart into it if she wants to succeed, Plain said.

“You should want to do the job, and if you want to do the job, you will find a way to accommodate for it.”

Women bring a different perspective to the table, said Reeves, when asked why more women should run for office.

“A board that has a mix of males and females on it operates better.”


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