COLUMN: Many obstacles to achieving gender balance on city council

 

Tara Jeffrey

When a man is tough, he is admired. When a woman is tough, she is a bitch.

That’s what Manitoba MLA Myrna Driedger wrote in a 2013 Parliamentary Review on the challenges faced by women in politics.

On top of stereotypes, the report points to a number of other obstacles women face when it comes to running for office, including a significant recruitment gap (women are asked less to run); a growing distaste for politics in general, and the fact that many hold themselves back because they don’t think they’re qualified.

That, on top of balancing childcare and the growing negativity associated with modern campaigns.

So I was pleasantly surprised to see so many women throw their hat in the ring for this year’s municipal election — a decision that couldn’t have been made lightly — including a dozen female candidates for Sarnia city council, which is currently represented by three women.

That means 30% of this year’s candidates are female — compared to just 20% in London and 19% in Ottawa — and doubled the six women who ran in 2014.

According to the United Nations, a threshold of at least 30% of female legislators is required to ensure that public policy reflects the needs of women.

But why stop there?

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities wants to see women make up 50% of municipal councils by 2026, so there’s some work to do.

Across Canada, women represent just 18% of mayors and 28% of councillors.

Initiatives like the Standing Committee on Increasing Women’s Participation in Municipal Government, launched back in 2005, work to encourage more women to run for office while reducing the obstacles.

The Women’s Municipal Campaign School in the Waterloo region and London’s Women and Politics are similar endeavours.

Locally, Sarnia-Lambton has formed a chapter of Women’s March Canada, and one of its missions is to seek fair representation of women locally, nationally, and internationally.

Women like Michelle Maitland, a 32-year-old busy mom of two boys, running for a seat in St. Clair Township, and Meghan Reale, a 33-year-old science professor and new mom, vying for a Sarnia council seat.

Whether or not they’re successful in their council bids, hopefully these women will inspire a new generation of potential community leaders — much like the trailblazing Marcella Brown.

The Sarnia woman, who passed away in 1998, was not only one of the only working moms in her Russell Street neighbourhood, she was also among the first women to attend Western University in the 1930’s, and one to the first female newspaper reporters in Sarnia.

Her venture into the highly male-dominated municipal politics led to a 15-year tenure on council that culminated in her receiving the Queen’s Jubilee Medal in 1978, for her contributions to the community, and paving the way for future women to believe that, “yes, she can” run for office.