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What it’s like to be a woman in politics

For women, getting elected is only half the battle. Female politicians around the globe routinely face harassment and abuse on social media and from colleagues — and Canada is no exception. 

By Stephania Varalli

When it comes to women in politics, the conversation is often focused on the struggles of gaining office. And for good reason: according to UN Women, only 22.8 per cent of all national parliamentarians were women as of June 2016. This is nearly double the amount from two decades ago, but not nearly a fair representation for 50 per cent of the population.

Unfortunately, focusing on this shortfall can divert attention from an equally important topic: getting elected is only half the battle.

Female politicians around the globe routinely face harassment and abuse on social media and from colleagues. And while Canada is progressive in many ways — from a gender-balanced cabinet to a Prime Minister that calls himself a feminist — our country is by no means immune.

When Senator Salma Ataullahjan was asked to participate in a study by the Inter Parliamentary Union (IPU) on sexism, harassment and violence against women parliamentarians, she assumed it wouldn’t be relevant to her, because she’s from Canada. Answering the survey questions, she says, was enlightening — recounting a past incident made her recognize the inappropriate behaviour she’d experienced. And she was not alone. Of the 55 women MPs that went through in-depth interviews, hailing from 39 countries and covering five regions of the world, 82 per cent had experienced some form of psychological violence. The message is clear: there needs to be dialogue addressing not only how women get into power, but how they are treated while in public office.

The subject is being forced to the forefront this year. On a global level, with the hard-fought election and defeat of Hillary Clinton, which dominated the news cycle and made it all too apparent how women in politics are viewed with a different lens, and attached with a different viciousness. In Canada, outspoken women in government have raised the issue, and made it clear that they aren’t referring to isolated incidents.

In April of this year, MP Michelle Rempel penned an op-ed for the National Post, urging men to Confront your sexism. In it, she outlined the “everyday sexism” she faces as a member of Parliament, from name calling, to ass-grabbing, to “assumptions that I have gotten to my station in life by (insert your choice of sexual act) with (insert your choice of man in position of authority).”

When Alberta legislature member Sandra Jansen crossed the floor this November, from the Tories to the NDP, it was in part because of the harassment she endured running on a progressive platform in the Progressive Conservative party leadership race.  The following week, she made an impassioned plea to all parties in the Alberta Legislature to take a united stand against the abuse.

“Please oppose it,” she said to the house. “Don’t ignore it. Don’t look the other way. Don’t excuse it. Because our daughters are watching us.”

Jansen’s words inspired a recent segment on CBC’s The National, that asked a group of female MPs to share some of the hateful messages they had received on social media. “Women aren’t special,” read Elizabeth May, “If you can’t take the hate, get out of parliament.” That was the least offensive of the negative comments the Green Party Leader shared. The Honorable Bardish Chagger, Leader of the Government in the House of Commons and Minister of Small Business and Tourism (who will be joining us on stage this Friday for our Women in Politics panel), had one of the most appalling: “Vagina is an asset. Always can put it in use one way or the other.”

On a local, national, and global level, the issue is long overdue for a solution. Can a difference be made with the open dialogue that these Canadian women in politics are encouraging? One thing is for certain: we’re ready to talk.