Strong family-friendly policies and an “old girls’ network” are needed to encourage and support potential women candidates for politics, says a London sociologist who specializes in gender issues in the workplace.
“We need an old girls’ network. We need women supporting women and men supporting women as well,” said Brescia University College professor Helene Cummins, who recently received a Status of Women Award of Distinction for her work in advancing women in the workplace.
“More women are going into male-dominated fields like medicine and business, but women still tend to avoid the political spectrum. There are those multiple reasons, but they avoid conflict and aggressive social situations,” said Cummins.
She said “bully cultures” thrive in political settings and women are more likely to avoid those types of environments. There are female bullies . . . but typically, women are more communal. They typically seek to share power.”
The problem is, power isn’t being shared with women. While it’s been more than a year since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau famously quipped “Because it’s 2016,” when asked why he had appointed women to half of his cabinet positions, women continue to be greatly underrepresented at all levels of government in Canada.
As Cummins said, there are a multitude of potential barriers more likely to affect female candidates, many of them systemic. At city council level, those could include late-afternoon and evening meetings and absence of child care. In London, some politicians are pushing to have city council identify and address barriers to women candidates before the 2018 election.
Cummins has an instant suggestion.
“There should be daycare available,” she said, noting that statistically women continue to do the bulk of household work, which includes caring for children. “We have to have policies in place to support women in these vital roles.”
Those policies could include stricter code-of-conduct rules. Across the country, when asked why more women don’t enter politics about 30% of Canadians surveyed blame the negative environment, which includes hostility and aggressive campaigning, debating and public scrutiny.
Sheri Doxtator, former Chief of Oneida Nation of the Thames said she has experienced “sexism, racism and ageism,” while representing her community. “It’s in First Nation politics, in mainstream politics as well. People are slinging the mud, and so aggressive, and the name calling . . . it could’ve buried me,” said Doxtator, who was a facilitator at the 2016 Southwestern Ontario Women’s Political Summit and is organizing a similar event in Toronto for Indigenous women leaders.
“But it has always been my belief that the Creator has made women with such strength, honour and respect and such gifts that we will persevere. Women can deal with these things in a good way. Change the tone. I say, ‘I’m here to listen.’ For me, being a leader is not about telling people what to do, it’s about helping people become leaders themselves.”
London’s Ward 5 Coun. Maureen Cassidy didn’t mince words. “It can get ugly. I’ve had a lot of experience with ugliness over the last year. But I was elected to do this job and I love my job,” she said. “We have to rally around women, support them and show them this is something women are good at. It’s also important to mentor young women.”
Support would help with the “imposter syndrome,” often suffered by women politicians, including Ward 10 Coun. Virginia Ridley, who recalled feeling like “the biggest faker out there,” for the first six months of her term.
Baechler too said she used to be “filled with dread,” every time she pulled into the city hall parking lot during her rookie year in 1993.
“As soon as I got there, my heart would start to pound,” she told WP. “It was an environment I wasn’t comfortable in. People would be skewered. If you went against someone who was aggressive and bullying, you’d suffer a backlash.”
Baechler believes a more gender-balanced government would be a less aggressive one and has long advocated for strong networks of support around women political candidates. She – along with London’s four women city councillors — is a mentor with King’s University College’s Head Start program, which is a Federation of Canadian Municipalities initiative that aims to increase participation of women on elected council.
“Men tend to have a more confrontational and aggressive style and approach to issues. Women look in and see this yelling back and forth and say ‘I don’t want to play that game,’” she said. “The more we see women appointed to those positions, the more women say ‘ok there’s a place for me.’ Those are all important pieces to changing the system,” she said.
Initiatives such as Women and Politics “Ask Her” campaign — which encourages Londoners to suggest a city council run to women who they think would make good city leaders – could be the push some excellent potential candidates need.
“Often times, women lack political self efficacy and are less likely to seek the recognition to run for politics,” said Brescia’s Cummins. “We need to highlight those unique skills they have and nurture them to be the best they can be.”
Jennifer O’Brien is a journalist in London, Ontario.