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Why we need more women in municipal politics


Addressing the “women can’t have it all” reality of Toronto’s political arena—and what we can do to change it


By Katie Underwood




No matter what Hillary Clinton tells you, it’s never been a better time to be a woman in the political arena: A mere two-and-a-half years ago, the world let out a collective sigh as Canada’s newly elected Prime Minister offloaded the feminist soundbite of the year — “Because it’s 2015” — to justify the country’s first gender-balanced cabinet.

Then, last year, came the country’s first gender-balanced budget, which saw the federal government lending an eye to issues like parental leave and childcare funding in an effort to alleviate economic burdens that disproportionately affect women. At a micro level, grassroots organizations are springing up everywhere in the hopes of recruiting and outfitting women with the tools to make the run of their lives.

But even though sweeping symbolic changes seem to be happening at higher levels of government, at the municipal level the hard numbers are less inspiring: A paltry 18 per cent of mayors across the country are women. In Toronto, Canada’s largest, most diverse metropolis, fewer than a third of city councillors are female and just one is a woman of colour — figures woefully out of sync with the 52 per cent of women who call the city home. So why the disparity?

For starters, the same attitudinal barriers (read: sexism) that keep women at bay affect politics at all levels. A 2017 public opinion poll commissioned by Equal Voice, a multi-partisan organization aimed at electing more Canadian women to office, presented some alarming stats: 58 per cent of respondents said there are either “too many” or “the right number” of women in office; 22 per cent would “definitely not recommend” a career in politics to women they know well; and 30 per cent thought the “hostile” nature of the sector was why more women were abstaining from the game.


“There are so many different ways society tells women to stay put. They end up thinking the political arena is not for them.”


If you follow the news, that final figure makes sense. Merely uttering the names Kathleen Wynne, Elizabeth May or Catherine McKenna (once called “Climate Barbie”) in mixed company is enough to release a bilious cloud of misogyny into the air. And the attacks don’t stop at verbal: In a recent Canadian Press survey, taken by 38 of Canada’s 89 female MPs, 58 per cent of participants claimed they had been victims of the industry’s “casting couch” culture and endured inappropriate remarks, gestures or text messages of a sexual nature.

Kristyn Wong-Tam, the Ward 27 Councillor for Toronto, says she has experienced this hostility first-hand and faced judgment about her gender presentation in the past. “Women are criticized for their body weight, what they wear, the way they style their hair, as opposed to their intellect or capacity to deliver successful results,” she says. “Men aren’t put through the same level of that.” She adds that when women do stick around despite all that nasty sexism, they’re mostly lobbed opportunities to run in “long-shot” constituencies, which promise limited odds of a victory. “There are so many different ways society tells women to stay put. They end up thinking the political arena is not for them.”

And then there are the economic barriers, says Michal Hay, former campaign director for NDP leader Jagmeet Singh. “We know that, broadly, more women live in poverty than men, that they make less on the dollar than men, and that they bear most of the responsibility for childcare,” she says, adding that most candidates (of both genders) inevitably have to leave their jobs for the campaign trail. “The commitment of money and time that running for office requires means there’s a huge risk to them.”

It’s exactly that niggling “women can’t have it all” mentality that a growing swell of non-partisan political groups are hoping to eliminate. One such collective is Progress Toronto, a non-profit outfit — run by none other than Michal Hay — that aims to influence City Hall’s decision-making process by advocating for progressive candidates to win electoral seats. There’s also Women Win TO, a program that trains women to run for municipal politics by connecting them with resources and a network and show them the ropes of running municipalities.

“Because politics is such a male-dominated space, women don’t necessarily know the ins and outs of the campaign,” Hay says. “They need to know what is going be required of them — what resources, what kind of team they’re going to need around them.”

The hope is that the concentrated efforts of local groups of women supporting women will lead to a measurable increase in the number of women elected to positions of influence. If that happens, how might our cities look different?

For Wong-Tam, the impact of electing candidates who share the lived experience of their constituents can’t be overstated. As the daughter of a working-class immigrant mother, she is sensitive to the all-too-common reality of women having to sacrifice career aspirations in favour of practical concerns. “For me, it’s highlighted the value of government-provided services, like childcare — that wasn’t available to my mom, so she had to make a hard choice,” she says. “It’s why, today, I’m such a staunch advocate for gender equality.” Meanwhile, Hay suggests that in Toronto at least, the city’s financial priorities would look much different with more women in council: doubling down on affordable housing; expanded transit services for the TTC’s majority-female ridership; less-expensive childcare over a refurbished Gardiner Expressway.

Of course, it goes without saying that not all women vote as an ideological block — that is, not all are fiscally liberal or socially progressive — but at the very least, more lady leaders mean a better shot at having an equitable lens on a city’s most-pressing issues, as well as weeding out discrimination both on the job and in a city’s priorities. (Just ask Wong-Tam, who was instrumental in passing a bill to have Toronto’s budget made more “gender-responsive.”)

Dollars and cents aside, however, perhaps the most powerful promise of electing more women now is electing even more women in their footsteps. The old adage of “if you can see it, you can be it” rings true. “The more women you have running for office, the more you tend to have working on their campaigns,” says Hay. And better yet? “Running themselves.”

Here are four things you need to know before running (courtesy of Nancy Peckford, executive director of Equal Voice Canada and first-time municipal candidate in Ottawa):


Be a Leader (Before Leading)

It’s really helpful to have some prior leadership experience in the community. Within party politics, you have a baseline network, whereas in municipal politics, you really have to build yourself up, so taking on leadership roles at a community level can make a big difference.


Know Your Demo

Understand who lives in your ward or city, how they vote, and whether your candidacy will align with that. Learn how to speak with potential voters in ways that are meaningful to them.


Quiz Yourself

Equal Voice’s “Getting to the Gate Campaign School,” is a guide that assesses your campaign-readiness. Use it to evaluate yourself on some of the factors necessary for a successful run, like confidence speaking in front of crowds and comfort level with policy arenas. Identify your strengths and weaknesses.


Ask Around

Speak to women who have also run. The municipal arena is underestimated for its complexity, so those who have campaigned and served successfully will have very unique and valuable insights.



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