In July, after Jason Kenney began his run for the next leader of Alberta’s Progressive Conservative Party, Marie Renaud, the NDP MLA for St. Albert took to Twitter to ask him about his views on abortion. “Just one question for Mr. Kenney, Pro-choice or not?” she asked. This was followed by a second Tweet which read: “I had an abortion and I thank God I was able to. Who wants to change that?” Last year, another NDP MLA, Maria Fitzpatrick, spoke to the Alberta legislature about the rape and abuse she suffered at the hands of her late husband.
That women are impacted by abortion, rape and domestic violence is nothing new. What has changed, though, is that more women are now speaking out about these deeply personal experiences as elected representatives. Women politicians have become increasingly visible in the past few years, with three provinces currently led by female first ministers and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau making a point of appointing an equal number of men and women to his first cabinet “because it’s 2015.”
But despite the growing visibility of women in government, they remain underrepresented in politics across the country and particularly here at home. In Edmonton, just one woman, Bev Esslinger, sits on Edmonton’s 12-person city council. Calgary’s city council of 14 only has two women, Druh Farrell and Diane Colley-Urquhart. In both cities, there are initiatives to coax more women into running for council seats. In 2014, the City of Edmonton’s City Council established the Women’s Initiative and the Women’s Advocacy Voice of Edmonton (WAVE) Committee to make sure that women’s voices are heard and to encourage women to become involved in local politics.
Women face numerous roadblocks when it comes to running for office. They typically have less disposable income than men, as well as additional responsibilities at home, such as childcare, that make running for office complicated. But Marian Bruin, the supervisor of City of Edmonton’s Community Strategies and Development Branch, says that women are often less willing to run on their own initiative.
“What we find is that women need to be invited to run or to participate; they don’t just step up that easily,” she says.
That issue was also identified by Ask Her, a grassroots organization that began by encouraging people to ask the woman in their lives to consider running for Calgary city council. Esmahan Razavi, one of the group’s co-founders, says she’s found that women tend to take longer to decide to run, which makes their campaigns less likely to succeed.
“A lot of other candidates will have started campaigning much earlier, so they’ll have the funds necessary to run viable campaigns, and they’ll have the name recognition within the wards that they’re running. When a woman finally decides to run, it’s almost too late,” she says.
Women tend to be less confident in their political knowledge and abilities than men, and are consequently less interested in running for office. Although the education and wage gaps for women have narrowed, the gap in political confidence and leadership has not. Even women who are highly qualified to run for office are less likely to do so.
In their book The Silent Sex, political scientists Christopher Karpowitz and Tali Mendelberg argue that it’s not that women are naturally uninterested in politics, but rather that they receive subtle and not-so-subtle messages from educational institutions and the media that they aren’t suited to leadership positions and are unlikely to succeed.
Organizations like Ask Her and the Women’s Initiative aim to counteract that messaging by building women’s confidence. Ask Her is launching a campaign school for women, while the newly-expanded Women’s Initiative’s “Opening the Potential Program” connects women with city councillors and local MLAs to learn about everything from campaigning to constituent meetings. Together, these organizations are teaching women about the intricacies of running for office as well as providing them with the encouragement and inspiration they require to run.
“We’re also hoping to get more women working on campaigns,” says Kaylin Betteridge, the Women’s Initiative Coordinator and a graduate of the Opening the Potential mentorship program. “One of the things we’ve identified as a barrier to women running is them being able to find strong campaign managers and support.”
But why go to all the effort? If women aren’t interested in politics, what’s the value in pouring resources into motivating them? For Razavi, one reason to encourage women to run is that it provides voters with more choices.
“When half the population doesn’t run, voters miss out on quite a few potentially qualified candidates with interesting ideas and important things to say,” she says. “By encouraging women who wouldn’t normally see themselves as candidates to run, we’re giving voters a better choice.”
But it’s not just about the election. It turns out that having more women in office is better for society as a whole. Multiple studies have demonstrated that groups reach decisions differently based on gender composition, and groups with more women tend to behave more collaboratively and reach decisions that are beneficial for both their own in-group as well as other stakeholders. From a policy standpoint, women are more likely to prioritize the protection of vulnerable segments of the population.
The reason for these differences isn’t entirely clear—scholars have spent decades debating whether women are somehow intrinsically kinder, gentler and less competitive than men, or whether these differences are the result of socialization. The modern view, summarized by Susan Howell and Christine Day in their study, “Complexities of the Gender Gap,” is that while biology may play a small role, women’s policy preferences are largely driven by childhood socialization, socioeconomic status and their experiences of inequality. In essence, women’s life experiences lead them to have—at least generally speaking—a different outlook on politics. That ‘feminine’ perspective, long excluded from the halls of power, has the potential to help decision-making bodies, from corporate boards to city council, make better decisions.
Thanks to the Women’s Initiative, women’s voices are already have an impact on city policy. When Bev Esslinger, Edmonton councillor, requested a report on transit safety, Edmonton Transit conducted a survey of riders to determine how safe they felt using transit. They brought their results to WAVE, and the women’s committee pointed out a major flaw in ETS’s study: they had only surveyed people taking transit, and not those who avoided transit due to feeling unsafe. ETS re-evaluated, and with WAVE’s assistance, ultimately launched an anti-harassment campaign on trains and buses as well as providing additional training to operators and transit security around sexual assault.
“It worked out really well, because transit ended up working with WAVE, and it was a really good chance for transit to have a win and for WAVE to have some of their objectives met,” says Betteridge.
That collaboration points to the importance of having a variety of perspectives, and Razavi points out that while it’s important to encourage women to run, there’s a need for increased diversity on city councils in general. “I’d also like to see more minorities on city council, and I’d like to see people from different backgrounds, with different types of jobs and from different age groups on city council. Having those different perspectives makes city council more representative of the city itself, and sort of allows everyone to feel that they are represented by city council,” she says.
The City of Edmonton’s Opening the Potential program begins on September 8, and Betteridge is hoping to have approximately 50 women and gender-variant participants in this year’s class, from a variety of different backgrounds with a wide range of experiences.