One for the books

Women hold majority of school board seats in Manitoba for first time


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Women now hold the majority of seats provincewide at one level of public office.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 04/07/2015 (2825 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Women now hold the majority of seats provincewide at one level of public office.

There are 162 women in school board seats across Manitoba, and 149 men.

After some hotly contested races last fall, after all the acclamations, after a dozen or so seats that drew no candidates were filled later by appointments, women are the majority of public school trustees in Manitoba for the first time.

It hasn’t happened yet in municipal or provincial governments or in Manitoba’s 14 federal seats.

“It’s been largely men up to the last 20 to 30 years,” said Carolyn Duhamel, who just retired after 15 years as executive director of the Manitoba School Boards Association, prior to which she was a school trustee in St. Boniface for 11 years, and before that, a teacher.

It’s been a long time coming, she said.

The most recent municipal elections held every four years have seen women holding a little better than 40 per cent of the school board seats, but never the majority.

“Having a mix brings different perspectives to the table; men and women see things from a different angle,” Duhamel said.

Is this a sign women could hold the majority of seats at other levels of government that have been male domains?

“It has to be seen that way,” said University of Manitoba gender and women’s studies Prof. Janice Dodd.

School boards are the most comfortable level for women, where there are no political parties with policies usually set by men, Dodd said.

“There’s a sense in which they have some autonomy at the school board level. They may be able to deal with each issue as they come up,” she said. “It means they can bring forward different areas of concern.”

On the other hand, said Dodd, “People don’t want to be essentialized,” meaning women don’t want to be seen as running for trustee because children’s education is a woman’s interest more than a man’s.

“Women for decades have been well-represented on school boards. It deals with the very traditional issue of the education of children,” said Angelia Wagner, who is finishing her PhD in political science at the University of Alberta.

In Brandon and Winnipeg, where school board politics tends to be fiercest, there are 28 women and 42 men.

“The more powerful the position, the less likely you are to find women,” said Wagner.

“We look for what kind of impact women make when they get into office,” Wagner said.

That’s why Wagner is so impressed the Winnipeg School Division implemented anti-homophobia education and promoted progressive programs when trustees such as Kristine Barr, Lori Johnson, Anita Neville, Liz Ambrose, Joyce Bateman and Rita Hildahl dominated the board.

Indeed, while men hold six of nine seats on the WSD board now, it’s trustee Lisa Naylor who has led the campaign to persuade the province the board has the right to reject religious instruction in its schools — Bible studies conducted privately, in non-class time, for kids who have written parental consent — if the content violates the division’s values.

It is difficult to find academics who’ve done serious research on school boards, nor has the school boards association analyzed gender issues.

A few years ago, the Altona-based Border Land School Division had eight women on its nine-seat board, and both the superintendent and secretary-treasurer were women. Neither would agree to be interviewed about how differently the division is being governed, if at all.

“It may be just more of a trend of women being involved — it may be part of a broader social trend,” Duhamel said. “It’s certainly more acceptable than it used to be.”

Until the late 1950s, most schools outside the cities each had a board. But however large the board, men ran it, Duhamel said.

From early last century, “We have a few old photos in the basement. There were few women, almost none, just a room full of men in suits,” Duhamel recalled.

“Our provincial executive, at one point, it was all men. When I was on the board of (Université de Saint-Boniface), it was almost all men. When I met with the (Association of Manitoba Municipalities), it was almost all men.”

Duhamel said there’s still a perception some people run as trustees as a first step to higher office, but most trustees are there to serve children. “We see a number of people coming from the parent council ranks,” she said.

School boards are still far from being diverse ethnoculturally, Duhamel said. “Representation is not aligned with the demographics of the community” at any level of government.

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