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.



Reposted courtesy of LocalLove.ca, a magazine-style website powered by United Way that helps people live well and do good.


Five Things You Should Know About the Honourable Jody Wilson-Raybould

Jody Wilson-Raybould Closeup

The Honourable Jody Wilson-Raybould became Canada’s Minister of Justice in 2015, joining 14 other women to form Canada’s first gender-equal Cabinet. But did you also know she’s also a lawyer, advocate, and leader among British Columbia’s First Nations?  Here are 5 things you should know about the Honourable Jody Wilson-Raybould.




1. She’s the first Indigenous person to be sworn in as Minister of Justice of Canada

Wilson-Raybould is a descendant of the Musgamagw Tsawataineuk and Laich-Kwil-Tach peoples, which are part of the Kwakwaka’wakw and also known as the Kwak’wala speaking people of British Columbia. She is also a member of the We Wai Kai Nation. On November 4, 2015 she made history as Canada’s first Indigenous Minister of Justice, and is only the 3rd woman to ever hold the title (following Kim Campbell and Anne McLellan).


2. She’s a vocal advocate for transgender rights

On May 17, 2016, Wilson-Raybould introduced Bill C-16, An Act to Amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code, which addresses the discrimination and hate crimes experienced by trans and gender-diverse Canadians. These amendments include protection against employment discrimination, and adding “gender identity or expression” to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination.


3. She was a provincial Crown prosecutor 

Wilson-Raybould served in Vancouver’s Main Street criminal courthouse in the Downtown Eastside from 2000-2003. As a Commissioner elected by the chiefs of the First Nations Summit, she helped to advance a number of treaty tables, including Tsawwassen First Nation, which became the first in B.C. to achieve a treaty under the BC Treaty Process.


4. She’s been vying for a career in politics since childhood

In 1983, Wilson-Raybould’s father Bill Wilson, a First Nations politician, informed Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau on national Canadian television that one day, his two daughters hoped to become lawyers and then Prime Minister themselves. As it turns out, Wilson-Raybould’s childhood dreams are coming closer to reality than she may have expected.


5. She’ll be featured on our Luncheon finale panel

Are you interested in how the Honourable Jody Wilson-Raybould feels about the status of women in Canadian politics? What about her thoughts on important national topics like Aboriginal affairs and democratic reform? Join us on December 9th as we get to the heart of what matters most to Canadians — and Canadian women specifically — at our season finale Luncheon, State of Our Nation: Let’s Talk About Women in Politics.


Want to join the conversation? Purchase your ticket here.


Win or lose, Trump is bad for gender equality

Donald Trump and his campaign are damaging to women, and the effects are going to last longer than November 8.

By Stephania Varalli

Remember 2012? The most talked about gender equality issue to come up in that presidential election was Romney’s “Binders full of women.” Four years later, and we’ve lowered the bar down — way down, horrifically down — to “Grab ‘em by the pussy.”  

This is more than a shocking sound bite. It is a tagline to a campaign that has caused lasting damage to women’s equality, in the United States and beyond.

It’s important to remember that the release of the notorious hot mic recording was more of a culmination than a surprise. Trump’s misogyny is well documented — his own Twitter account is as damning as the “corrupt media” — from open insults, to objectification, to workplace discrimination. His supporters land somewhere on a spectrum between ignoring this behaviour, rationalizing it, or applauding and joining in.

The Trump Tape certainly lost him some votes, as did the dozen women who have come forward since to accuse him of the very sexual assault he described on it, but his polling numbers have recovered slightly and he still has a narrow path to victory. The #NextFakeTrumpVictim hashtag persists. Trump is threatening to sue his accusers, and there’s an army of surrogates that are doing all they can to justify his behaviour.

And while Trump’s dismissal and attack on his alleged victims is deplorable (yes, he has not been proven guilty, but “She would not be my first choice” is a defense strategy that only digs the pit deeper), it’s the work of his fellow Republicans that I find most disturbing. Many are borderline ridiculous, including conspiracy theories about immovable armrests on First Class flights, and claims of hypocrisy that are based on connecting Hillary with Beyonce and her “lewd” lyrics (and that’s just one of the hypocrisy angles). Unfortunately, most are exactly the kind of arguments that keep sexual assault victims quiet, that embolden perpetrators, that unfairly lump all men into one unenlightened category, and that set back the equality conversation for all women.

“Nobody has more respect for women than I do — nobody.”

             – Donald Trump, proving that he needs to look up the definition of respect

Newt Gingrich referred to Trump’s alleged assault of Jessica Leeds as a “bad airplane flight” and “thirty-year-old gossip.” Joe Scarborough said he was “skeptical about the timing” of the claims.  Ben Carson took the Locker Room Talk defense to a new level, suggesting that the problem is women don’t hear it often enough, which is what caused it to be shocking. Ivanka Trump tried to argue that he’s an equal opportunity offender, which she offers up as her father’s version of gender equality. (This is almost as cringeworthy as Donald Trump Jr. suggesting that women who can’t handle harassment “don’t belong in the workforce” and “should go maybe teach kindergarten.”)

Let’s look at the messages they are sending to women. Any reaction to sexual harassment is an overreaction. If you want to come forward, your motives will be questioned. Talk is harmless. Toughen up.

No matter who you are voting for (or rooting for), you can see it’s a step backwards for gender equality. And it’s an insult to all of the people that fought so hard to eradicate this kind of aggressive and demeaning behaviour from the locker room to the boardroom.

Win or lose, the damaging rhetoric has been repeated enough times that it has, at the very least, changed what is considered acceptable discourse, and at the worst, emboldened men who had only thought these things to speak or act. Trump has given unacceptable behaviour a voice. His team has worked every angle to justify it. And let’s not forget that this election is being watched worldwide.

I’m comforted by the fact that women are keeping Donald Trump from a sure path to victory. And that “nasty woman” was almost instantly appropriated as a feminist rallying cry. I will feel far better if Hillary Clinton is elected on Nov 8, not by a slim margin but by a definitive, message-sending landslide.  



A Look Back At 20 Years of Women’s Advancement For Women Of Influence, Canada And The World

For 20 years, Women of Influence has celebrated female entrepreneurs, senior executives and innovative leaders. In honour of this milestone year, we’re looking back at two decades of events and women who kicked cracks in the glass ceiling.

Continue reading

Canadian Political Leaders Call for More Women in Public Office

Moderated by: Isabel Bassett, Equal Voice EVE Award Recipient and Former Ontario Minister

The Panel Includes:
The Honourable Sheila Copps, President, Sheila Copps & Associates, Former Deputy Prime Minister
The Honourable Barbara McDougall, Advisor, Aird & Berlis, Former Member of Parliament
Jennifer Lawless, ph.D Associate Professor, Department of Government, Director, Women & Politics Institute, School of Public Affairs, American University
Peggy Nash, MP, Parkdale – High Park, Federal NDP Leadership Candidate

If you don’t speak for yourself someone else will speak for you — but not necessarily with your interests in mind. Join Women of Influence and Equal Voice on December 2nd as we explore how women make their mark in a political climate that is complex, chaotic and often unforgiving. With Canada currently ranked at 39th in the world in terms of female representation, the need for more women to run has never been greater. So what’s the hold up? Why is it so important that more women seek this responsibility? How do female representatives make a meaningful impact in a profession still largely dominated by men? Is work life balance actually possible and is the relentless public scrutiny worth it? Isabel Bassett, former Ontario Minister and EV National Award Recipient, will tackle these questions head on. Hear what female politicians from across the spectrum have to say about a wide range of hot topics and what drives these trailblazers to continually make strides for women in Canada and around the world.

According to Equal Voice, Women represent:

25% of federally elected MPs
22% of provincial and territorial
25% of municipal councillors
16% of mayoral positions

During a period of significant change in the domestic and global landscapes, is the voice of women strong enough?

To continue to view the speech, click the arrow to the right of the video screen.


  •  Power exists. Someone’s going to have it. Why shouldn’t it be you?
  • Before we tackle the family balance issue that women in politics face, we need to make sure women think to run. It’s not an absence of fear that drives us to advance in politics. It’s overcoming the fear.
  • Set a goal. Understand your goals and practice them. Complete and practice “the ask”.
  • Whatever gives you anxiety is often the place you need to go. It can be the place with the most energy and a place where you will grow.

Under Represented: Women in Politics

Women’s voices are still missing in Canadian Politics: It’s our right — and our responsibility — to be heard.

By Isabel Bassett
Photography by Dyanne Wilson | Equal Voice

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Equal Voice, an organization established to get more women into Canadian politics. The goal is to achieve gender parity in all three levels of government in Canada, but we have yet to reach 30 per cent — the magic number when a minority voice begins to be heard.

What has changed in 10 years? The May 2 federal election saw 407 women candidates run and 76 elected — we now have eight more women in Parliament than the last election. But we are still far short of our goal. Even though women represent 52 per cent of our population, they only make up 25 per cent of federally elected officials, which is slightly better than 10 years ago.

As Kim Campbell said when she won the Eve Award a few years ago, “At this rate, we won’t have an equal number of women in Parliament for another four generations.”


Equality. Think of it this way: For those of you who share decision-making at home, would you allow your input to count for only 25 per cent? Of course not, because it wouldn’t be fair. Yet, that’s what we are allowing to happen by not being adequately represented in Parliament — where policies and laws are created that govern all aspects of our lives.

Secondly, men often have different priorities. Even though all women may not share the same views, studies show they are more likely to sympathize with and support family issues, such as childcare, health, housing and stopping domestic violence.

Studies also show that women have a more collaborative, less confrontational leadership style that benefits an organization. A McKinsey & Company report, called “Women Matter II,” shows that companies with more women in senior leadership have a clear, competitive advantage in the marketplace, with happier employees, shareholders and customers.

A collaborative style is certainly missing from our Parliament. Samara, a charity that studies the health of Canadian democracy, released a report based on exit interviews with MPs. They all called Parliament “dysfunctional” and “more like an unsupervised school- yard than a forum for public debate.”

Given this, it seems likely that if we had more women politicians, they would restore a little positive balance to the democratic process.


American associate professor Jennifer Lawless surveyed several thousand potential political candidates and concluded that women are holding themselves back. Many don’t want to work in a culture of confrontation, don’t want their private lives to be made public and almost everyone raises the familiar work-life balance conundrum. Not that I blame them — Lawless says women have been socialized to assume responsibility for their families.

She also found that this socialization breeds lack of confidence and ambition. Compared to men with equal qualifications, women tend to under- estimate their own abilities and shy away from new challenges. Many get to the end of the diving board, yet decide not to take the plunge into politics.

Fiona MacFarlane, International Women’s Forum co-chair and partner at Ernst & Young, described a leader- ship exercise at work: Employees formed groups to solve a problem, but first had to choose a leader. Even though the groups were diverse, they all choose a white, male leader.

Finally, women don’t see how they can make a difference in politics. Increasingly, they are gravitating towards not-for-profits, smaller firms or their own businesses — places where they feel they can make a difference, that

fit better with personal values and that have cultures more accommodating of a work-life balance. The net result is that women are still not represented in government and our public policy, and the functionality of government is lacking because of it.


To answer this, I need to step outside of my comfort zone. I was brought up at a time when women were groomed to be, above all, nice, and not to make waves. My mother told a story about an important luncheon where a waiter dropped a tray of food on a guest. The women continued talking as if nothing had happened — even as a second waiter slipped in the mess. We were taught that ‘ignoring the obvious’ saves every- one embarrassment. Today, this sort of thing is called ‘the elephant in the room.’

Anniversaries such as this, however, are a time to reflect, to measure the gap between expectations and performance, and to point out any elephants.

The United Nations has a tidy definition of equality, which says: “Equality between women and men refers to the equal rights, opportunities and responsibilities of women and men and girls and boys.” Today, thanks to all the women — and some enlightened men — who fought for suffrage, we have the rights and the opportunities. The elephant in the room is responsibility. The door is open, the path is — well the path leaves something to be desired — but it is clearly our responsibility to walk forward.

To demonstrate this, I thank Carolyn Lawrence, CEO of Women of Influence, for emailing me a YouTube video, entitled “Feminism Explained” — a satirical conversation between two animated characters at an office water cooler:

WOMAN: “Hi, I’m a feminist.”

MAN: “Oh No! …Why?”

WOMAN: She explains that she wants equal rights for women. To do this, more women need to study math and science, to do difficult jobs and to enter politics.

MAN: “What did you study?”

WOMAN: “English, because math and science are boring and I don’t want to hang out with geeks. But other women should…”

We want parity in politics, but we want someone else to actually step forward. Are we spoiled? Have we been socialized to keep our place? Do we lack the confidence? Do we fail to see how we could make a meaningful difference as a politician?

I asked myself these questions when I stood at the end of the diving board. Twenty years ago, the Canadian Club asked me to be president, but I didn’t think I’d fit in with the all male business elite. After a lot of soul searching, I saw this was the opportunity I’d been saying more women should take — so I took the leap. As it turned out, I was able to bring diversity and positive change to the board and gained the confidence, contacts and knowledge that proved invaluable when I went into politics.

To women who are interested in politics, I urge you to gather your confidence, to see the barriers as opportunities, to take the plunge and make some waves of your own. Remember, you have about 52 per cent of the population behind you. In case that’s not enough, you also have the support of Equal Voice and its many informative programs.

If everyone does their part and takes advantage of the rights and opportunities we have earned, collectively we can and will fulfill our responsibility of equal representation in government — long before our great-grandchildren are born.