Unique challenges face female politicians, say experts

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Over the past decade, the number of women holding elected office on Calgary’s City Council has been steadily declining. Following the most recent municipal election in fall 2013, two out of council’s 15 representatives are women, a ratio of only 12.5 per cent.

These numbers may seem representative of a different era. The last time numbers were this low was in 1971, when the late Barb Scott stood alone as the sole female representative on council.

So why are so few women entering Calgary’s political landscape? And what are the consequences when a city council lacks gender diversity? The Calgary Journal explores declining female political participation and what this might mean for our city.

 A loss of Perspective

There are far fewer women sitting on city councils in Alberta than there are men. And some may ask if this really matters, arguing that any good politician could represent his or her electorate, regardless of their gender.

“Women have a different sense of how things should work and how policy should work,” says Shannon Sampert, a University of Winnipeg professor who specializes in politics, media and gender.

“When women hold office, we gain a different attitude and a different approach to things that are seemingly gender neutral, because much of the decisions that are made in City Hall are actually gendered,” Sampert says.

She says that simply put, men and women often look at the world in different ways.

Sampert says one of the greatest consequences of having a city council with so few women is the loss of a female-oriented perspective. From infrastructure to transit and taxation, Sampert says policy decisions will inevitably impact women in a different way then they impact men, which is why it is important to have female voices at the table.

And while Sampert says she believes male representatives can be extremely open and sympathetic to the different ways issues affect women, she says this is no substitute for female voices on elected councils.

A Male Discipline?

So what does a politician look like? And how do they behave?

Sampert says for many, a politician is competitive, adversarial and not afraid to crush opponents in order to get things done. While this is a traditional way of doing things in politics, Sampert says this is not reflective of the leadership styles of many women, who tend to be more collaborative, team-oriented and modest.

Of course, there are exceptions to these descriptions of male and female political operatives. But Sampert says that for many women, it may be difficult to thrive on councils that embody the traditional male way of operating.

Sampert says when any discipline is traditionally dominated by one gender, there may be a way of doing things that unconsciously exclude the other gender.

By the Numbers: Alberta at a Glance 

Unbalanced gender representation on city councils is an issue present not only in Calgary, but in all of Alberta. One 2012 study conducted by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) showed that Alberta has the second-lowest ratio of female members on city councils that represent over 10,000 people total.

The study shows Alberta tied with Ontario for the second-lowest ratio of female councillors to council as a whole in urban areas, a ratio of 24 per cent. Only P.E.I. sits lower than the two provinces, with a female representation ratio of 11 per cent.

According to Statistics Canada, women make up just under half of Alberta’s population, but out of the province’s five cities, only 19.2 per cent of councillors are female.

Our neighbor to the north, Edmonton, faces a similar predicament as Calgary when it comes to gender representation. Bev Esslinger of Edmonton’s Ward 2 is the one and only female representative on the city’s 13-member council.

But things have not always been this way. In 2006, six women held office in Calgary’s City Council. Between 1986 and 2010, there were never less than five women with a seat at the table. Those numbers dropped down to three in 2010, and presently sit at two. Calgary’s two representatives are Druh Farrell of Ward 7, and Diane Colley-Urquhart of Ward 13.

Unique Challenges, Unique Contributions

Lori Williams, political science professor at Mount Royal University, says there are a number of barriers that make political participation more difficult for women everywhere.main Farrell2Ward 7 Coun. Druh Farrell is currently one of only two females with a seat at Calgary City Council after her re-election at the fall 2013 municipal election.

Photo by Krystal Northey

One of these barriers, says Williams, is a difference in self-assessment between men and women.

“You can have two people who are equally qualified to run for office, one male and one female,” says Williams. “Of the two, the man is much more likely to feel confident and qualified for the task at hand. A woman of equal skill and experience is more likely to assess herself in a critical way.”

Williams also says that the self-promotional nature of politics can be challenging for women who tend to be more team-oriented, while their male counterparts may thrive in more competitive settings.

Former Ward 4 Coun. Gael MacLeod says that during her time as a public figure, she found it difficult to take credit for successes that were a team effort.

“Coming from a community background, it’s understood that everybody contributes,” MacLeod says.

“So for me to stand up and say ‘I did this’ or ‘I did that,’ felt very offensive, like I was being a braggart. I understood the community effort as opposed to singling myself out as an individual and tooting my own horn,” she says.

MacLeod suggests that the adversarial nature of politics can also be challenging for women. She says she was frustrated at times with the style of discourse on council.

“It wasn’t that I didn’t have my own thoughts and opinions. It’s that it felt sometimes a bit more like warfare to me than it did a debate,” says MacLeod.

Professor Williams says she has frequently wondered whether or not there ought to be some sort of skills training that helps female politicians adapt to the adversarial nature of politics. MacLeod disagrees, and asks whether or not being less adversarial in nature is necessarily a bad thing.

“I would suggest it’s a good thing,” says MacLeod.

Tone and discourse aside, the University of Winnipeg’s Sampert also suggests there are logistical hindrances that keep women out of the political realm. Sampert says there are three main issues that deter women from entering into political life: money, child-care responsibilities and social networking.

Sampert says financial barriers could be particularly limiting for women. She references the fact that on average, women make less money than men to begin with. She suggests Calgary’s high cost of living only compounds this difficulty.

“It’s really expensive to run a political campaign if you don’t have the support of a party to help you fill the electoral machinery,” Sampert says.

Critical Mass: A Goal of 30 Per Cent 

It’s clear that even in 2014, women in Calgary and beyond face unique challenges when attempting to enter into political life.

“We can’t afford to lose the perspective of half of our population,” says Erin Hogan, a city councillor in Thompson, Manitoba. Hogan chairs a FCM committee focused on increasing female participation in municipal governments in cities like Calgary.

“We need to have women at the table, and so if there are challenges or there are barriers, we need to make sure that people are aware of them. We need to be better in terms of getting women involved,” says Hogan.

In 2010, FCM launched its Getting to 30% program, which aims to increase the ratio of female representation at a municipal level to a minimum mass of 30 per cent across Canada.

For Hogan, 30 per cent or higher is a bit of a magic number. She says the Getting to 30% campaign is partially inspired by United Nations statistics that show once this number is reached, policies start to reflect concerns related to women more accurately.

Sampert says the idea of a critical mass of 30 per cent is about more than just having female bodies at the table — it’s about a change in the way things are done.

“Once we do work towards the 30 per cent minimum then it won’t be a question of ‘should we get women to be more like the boys?’ The actual system itself will have changed,” Sampert says.

Looking Forward

But Calgary’s 12.5 per cent female representation on council is a far cry from the ratios of 30 per cent that advocates like Hogan and Sampert are calling for.

Heather McCreedy is one woman who is working to tighten this gap. McCreedy is the president of the University of Calgary’s Women in Leadership (WIL) Club. McCreedy says the club was founded back in 2010 because of the noted disparity between the number of women graduating from university, and the number of women holding influential leadership positions.

McCreedy says the WIL club creates opportunities for personal and professional development for all genders. She says she hopes the club will help women find a voice and realize their experiences are important.

“What I would like to see is women really believing that their voice is of value,” says McCreedy.

“That can’t be changed overnight, and it can’t be changed through one person,” McCreedy adds. “If you’re a man or if you’re a woman, you can support women in knowing that their voice and their ideas are so valuable.”


Read more about women’s livability in Calgary: Young Mothers 

Read more about women’s livability in Calgary: Women’s Safety 

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