September 28, 2020

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Winnipeg Free Press



Crashing the Old Boys' club

If history repeats itself, few women will run for office in municipal elections this fall. Those who have taken the plunge suggest it's time to break down the barriers that keep women out of elected office

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/8/2018 (774 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

As federal and provincial politics inch closer to gender parity, it seems municipal politics in Manitoba is stuck in the past, failing to attract an equal share of female candidates.

Of the 1,495 candidates who ran for municipal office in 2014, just 267 were women — or 18 per cent, according to a provincewide survey obtained through a freedom of information request and analyzed by the Free Press.

Of those female candidates, 157 were elected, resulting in 17 per cent of 914 elected positions being held by women.

Incredibly, 26 of 137 municipalities, including Dauphin, Headingley and Ste. Anne, had no female candidates.

A lack of women’s voices at council tables, not to mention a variety of non-white, non-cis and differently abled perspectives, is a detriment to good governance, said Delaney Coelho, co-founder of Equal Voice Manitoba. The non-partisan group encourages women to run for office.

"If women, women of colour, LGBTTQ* women and women with disabilities aren’t running, and women make up 51 per cent of the population, it’s just not possible that we’re getting the best candidates or the best representation," Coelho said.

Gender split among municipal councillors


757 men

157 women

Source: General municipal election survey 2014, individual municipalities


Gender split among municipal councillors and heads of council

757 men

157 women

Source: General municipal election survey, individual municipalities

"I can’t believe it to be true that the best candidates have always and will always be men."

The United Nations suggests governments should have at least 30 per cent female representation for a "critical mass" and to "make a visible impact on the style and content of political decision-making."

Reaching that "critical mass" can help prevent women from being just tokens on councils and in committee settings, Coelho said.

How women were represented in 2014 elections

Click to Expand

Source: General municipal election survey

With the next municipal elections set for Oct. 24, it’s worth noting where women have made strides and where the patriarchy still reigns supreme.

The issue is not necessarily an urban-rural divide. Data show both Winnipeg and Thompson had the most women run for council or mayoral seats in the last election, with 11 candidates apiece. Residents elected four women per council, though Thompson's margin of female representation is larger. The northern city has a nine-member council compared with Winnipeg's 16-member team.

Churchill had the third-most female candidates in 2014, with seven. Voters elected two of them.

As she prepares to retire from Winnipeg city hall this fall, Coun. Jenny Gerbasi lamented that more women haven't been elected during her 20-year tenure on council.

Winnipeg has consistently fallen below the UN-recommended 30 per cent quota, Gerbasi said, and currently hovers at 25 per cent. So far, women make up 25 per cent of the candidates in Winnipeg for the election.

"I don’t necessarily know what the answer is (to getting more women involved) because I think part of it is a cultural thing," Gerbasi said. "Like I know when I ran, people said to me, ‘Why would you want to go work in that Old Boys’ club?’ And at the time I thought, 'Well maybe somebody like me running could begin to make those changes there and to help to change the culture.'"

Gerbasi said she won't endorse any candidates this year, but hopes more women follow in her career path.

"I would hope that by being an active politician for 20 years, hopefully, I’ve been able to be a role model for others," she said.

While an "Old Boys’ club" mentality was often cited in interviews as a deterrent for women wanting to jump in, Penny Byer has a different take on the phenomenon. The Thompson councillor, who is running to become her city's first female mayor, said the perceived exclusivity has more to do with status than gender.

"From my perspective, yes, there is an Old Boys' club. And they’re not really that old…but they are a generation of people who went to school together and have worked together and done a number of things together," Byer said of Thompson’s hierarchy.

"It was pointed out to me by somebody it doesn’t matter what group you’re in – if you’re perceived to be a tight group that doesn’t encourage others to join you, you’re going to be perceived as an Old Boys' club."

Though she finds her job rewarding, Byer recognizes some women might hesitate to work in politics because the huge time commitment, especially for the mayor.

"Everybody will come to you for everything, from how come the grass didn’t get cut on my boulevard, to people jumping off the bridge. Everything comes to you. And in most cases, whether we like to admit it or not, even women who are in leadership roles (at work), at home are still the leaders and the managers there, too," she said.

Byer and Churchill Coun. Joanne Stover, describe their northern communities as friendly places where women are goaded to participate politically.

While teaching social studies to her Grade 9 students, Stover said one teen asked whether she had ever run for office. She hadn’t – but that question planted the seed.

Stover said when she ran in 2014, she expected to lose. But she clinched a seat and very much enjoyed the council ride.

Now Stover is mulling whether to put her name forward for a second term.

"I’ve done it and I’m glad. I have no regrets about doing it. But you know, I’ve had my turn. Some people are in it for the long haul and some people have that different energy," she said

In Churchill, Stover said the environment is "equitable" for men and women. "When you get behind the table, you’re council. It doesn’t matter."

Identity aside, getting elected is perhaps the hardest part. In municipal elections (maybe more so than other levels of government), incumbency is incredibly valuable, said candidate consultant Tannis Drysdale.

"Because election spending limits tend to be lower, voter turnout is usually lower, (and) it’s harder to get voters to pay attention to municipal elections. So that all probably leads to change being slower at a municipal level," said Drysdale, who worked as director of operations for the Progressive Conservative Manitoba camp in 2016.

Drysdale said there’s usually a more sustained focus on finding gender balance among political parties’ slates provincially and federally, whereas municipal campaigns centre on individuals and not party affiliation.

Women tend to be under more physical scrutiny when they seek out a seat, too, Drysdale noted.

"Women tend to not be able to run for office with one navy blue suit," she said. "Women are under more pressure and we have a narrower idea of what a female politician should look like in terms of how they should dress and what their hair should look like. You know, there’s a lot more interest in physical appearance, unfortunately."

Often, women also need more prodding to put their names on the ballot. It's estimated women need to be asked an average of seven times before they consider running for election, Coelho said. It's unclear whether the same rule of thumb applies to men.

Heads of council

122 men

15 women

Source: Association of Manitoba Municipalities

Heads of council

122 men

15 women

Source: Association of Manitoba Municipalities

It's also unclear how many council members in Manitoba have resigned since the 2014 municipal election.

Municipalities don't need to alert the province when they call a byelection to fill vacancies. A government source said the province is aware of 47 byelections to fill 50 empty seats since the last vote. Some were called to replace council members who had died, but a few more dramatic byelections made headlines.

In 2017, the RM of Ritchot lost quorum after the mayor and two councillors resigned, saying they'd been harassed and bullied. The provincial government was forced to call a byelection to replace the entire council.

In 2015, Cathie Brereton, reeve of the RM of Lac du Bonnet, said she was stepping down because of bullying and wanted to preserve her own health.

"Women are under more pressure and we have a narrower idea of what a female politician should look like in terms of how they should dress and what their hair should look like." – Tannis Drysdale

"I had to (leave) for medical reasons, because there was a stress among council members that I guess I couldn’t handle. And my husband and my doctor both said, 'You have to stop doing that,' because it was affecting my state of mind," Brereton said recently.

Overall, Brereton said she enjoyed her time on council, but wouldn't run again because she's enjoying retirement. She urged other women to give it a go, in Lac du Bonnet and beyond.

"I would love to see them (run). I think, by nature, we’re organizers because most of us can schedule so much, you know," Brereton said. "You have to be confident and you have to have support behind you."

Drysdale agreed more women should "make a run for it."

"I think that there is a real craving by the general public to see greater equality, and we all look for opportunities to not just elect women, but to elect competent, smart, thoughtful women."  

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