Gender and municipal politics: Women in City Hall

Photo of the Peterborough City Hall sign by Keila MacPherson.

It is a definitional aspect of democracy that all citizens are represented in government.

Historically and continuing into contemporary times, men are drastically over-represented in the Canadian government at all levels. The politics of gender are visible in our political system in many ways: first, in the proportion of women representatives in legislative bodies; second, in the discrimination women in politics face when campaigning and once elected; and third, in the type of social programming/policy created that address women’s issues.

These are three topics of an immense institutional problem that discourages women from participating that is engrained at every level of government.


In their monograph Electing a Diverse Canada, editors Andrew, Bile, Siemiatycki and Tolley write, “Those who occupy our institutions—our public space—are our public face, and that face has implications, not just for those who do not see themselves, but also for those who are affected by the decisions that are made, the policies that are implemented, and the public positions that are taken on behalf of Canadians.”

The decisions made in government affect day-to-day lives and without the contribution of diverse voices, decisions can represent monolithic interests of a privileged group. The experiences of men and women are obviously different in a myriad of ways, yet, without women’s voices at the table, governments fail to represent this demographic of the constituency appropriately.

The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) sets the benchmark for sufficient representation of women in politics at 30% of legislators. Yet, Canada struggles to even approach the minimum benchmark for equal representation of men and women in political bodies.

The federal government broke its record for female representation in 2011 when 40 women were elected into office, occupying only one quarter of seats in the House of Commons. Women’s representation has grown steadily from 1921 when the first female Member of Parliament (MP) was elected until the 1990s when growth rates stalled at 20-21% where they have mostly stayed since.

In Ontario, the current legislature is 35.5% constituted by female Members of Provincial Parliament (MPP). This proportion is relatively high in comparison to the other provinces, but still barely clears the benchmark of 30% set by UN Women.

And at the municipal level, across Canada 16% of mayors and 26% of council members are women. In the City of Peterborough, women’s representation at City Council has typically been very low. The 2014 municipal election saw two women, one incumbent and one new candidate, putting Peterborough just below the benchmark at 29%.
Comparison to Societal Equity Measurements

Our national indices of the gender gap indicate that we are becoming a more equal society in terms of health and education indicators, however, politically and economically, women are still far underrepresented.

The Global Gender Gap Report compares nations on a global scale for their statistics of gender equity. In 2012 Canada ranked in the 38th slot for political empowerment and 21st overall.

The Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives reports that while Canada’s education and health coefficients are at 0.99 and 0.98 respectively (1.0 being full equality between men and women), on the other hand, our political empowerment coefficient remains at 0.196 (meaning for every one woman there are five men represented in politics). This abysmal score has not improved significantly in the past twenty years either.

The fact that we may be improving our education and health rates for women but failing to increase participation in politics may indicate more structurally entrenched issues for women in the political environment.

Structural Barriers

Researchers suggest that there are many different reasons for the under-representation of women in politics. In the monograph Stalled, authors contribute to a discussion of women in Canadian politics. They find that women are: (1) not encouraged in the same way men are to seek political office; (2) incumbents are more likely to be re-elected which makes it difficult to break into the political scene; and (3) Feminism tends to align more closely with Left leaning parties and in an more conservative environment, women may not so encouraged or motivated to participate.

This ideological divide between the right and the left and its alignment with gender can heighten political difference. In Peterborough, city councillor Diane Therrien spoke to Arthur regarding her experience. She said, “I don’t share a lot of political values with the mayor; we have very different perspectives. Ultimately, we’re working toward what we both feel is the betterment of the city, but the way that we approach that is very different.”

There are debates over the extent to which the solution for gender inequality lies in empowering individual women and in the changing of environments and attitudes.
Believing in oneself can only go so far when faced with discrimination and discouragement in your workplace.

Photo of Diane Therrien at a debate prior to the October 27 municipal election by Elizabeth Thipphawong.

A Hostile Environment

Beyond the simple fact of being elected, there are hardships in the process of campaigning and in office that are particularly gendered. During the campaign period council candidates are subject to scrutiny for their political platform and often their character is brought into question to see if they would be a suitable representative. Questions of character can manifest themselves in different ways for the different genders.

Jocasta Boone, a businesswoman, ran for City Council in Monaghan Ward in this 2014 municipal election. In an interview with Arthur Boone described the fact of becoming a public figure to be a key challenge. “All of a sudden, everything changes over night. Suddenly you’re public and what that means is that you’re fair game in any conversation,” said Boone.

Being a woman and a single mother in the public forum meant that Boone was relentlessly questioned on her capacity to be an adequate parent and politician simultaneously. She said, “I felt that I had to justify repeatedly, hundreds if not thousands of times, how I could be a parent and have this job… You only have so much time to talk to people and I spent so much of that time addressing how I could be a politician and a parent, and not talking about policy or politics. That got frustrating.” Contrary to these misgivings about parenthood and political engagement, Boone used her candidacy as a lesson for her children on political engagement and community activism.

Once in office councilwomen face extra hurdles to their work, harassment from fellow politicians, and misogyny from the public. Cllr Therrien in her short time at City Council thus far has had to tolerate pejorative and patronizing comments made about her competency. Therrien said, “Being a young woman there, I can see there’s still a lot of gender bias through the comments made. Certain things I know that if I were a dude he wouldn’t have said that… And sometimes you just need to call people out on it. Like ‘please don’t call me ‘girl’, that’s condescending’.”

Not only in the comments made unselfconsciously, but also in direct discussions about gender equity, there are difficulties even establishing a basis for conversation. Therrien said, “There’s still a very old school contingent that doesn’t get that there’s a need for gender balance. I’ve heard from other councillors who have brought it up in other contexts that if they say something about that they get looks like they have 3 heads.”

Peterborough Area

The Peterborough area has a long way to go in many respects toward achieving gender equity, but things are being done to move this issue forward. In the County of Peterborough, two of the eight townships are lead by women mayors. On six township councils, there is either one or two women sitting on council, and in Havelock-Belmont-Methuen there are no women on council and in Selwyn there are three.

At County Council, in spite of there being only three of sixteen seats filled by women, these women represent the largest townships and due to the structure of weighted voting, these women hold seven of the twenty votes.

Selwyn Township, which constitutes a major portion of the regional geography, holds two of these seats on County Council and five votes between the two women. This township has four of five city council positions filled with women, making a whopping 80% of representation for women. In fact, they have had a woman as mayor since 2010. Mayor of Selwyn Township Mary Smith met with Arthur for an interview on her experiences of gender in politics. “I feel strongly that other women need to see themselves represented in government and feel that it’s accessible for them to be a part of government as well,” Smith said.

Smith regularly mentors young people and women who are aspiring to work in politics. She encouraged anyone considering politics to seek out advice and engage in the community directly.

Along this vein of stimulating conversation, the YWCA is working on hosting forums for discussion in which women of many backgrounds are invited to talk about their experiences in politics. Lynn Zimmer, executive director of the YWCA in Peterborough, in an interview with Arthur said, “If you don’t have an iron coating it can be quite debilitating and there are things being levelled at women that are not being levelled at men that should be talked about.”

Getting these discussions going can be a little problematic too, as the women participating may also be running against each other. Zimmer said, “Just because we’re all running and we’re all women doesn’t mean we’re necessarily all together.” It comes down to whether or not to reveal vulnerabilities, which can be a politically charged move.

In their experiences of running and participating in municipal politics both Cllr Therrien and Jocasta Boone expressed that they are open and eager to engage in discussions of women in politics. Boone said, “There’s almost a sort of taboo around the topic. First we need to get the conversation going on out in the open before we start coming up with solutions.”

While statistically it looks as though the gender parity will not be achieved for decades if not centuries, the enthusiasm of women in politics locally will hopefully create an environment that encourages and facilitates more women in the future. In the face of discouragement, brave and committed women are needed to create and maintain paths for later generations.

via Gender and municipal politics: Women in City Hall.

Published by Ayesha Barmania

Ayesha Barmania is a journalist-entrepreneur and audio documentary maker, living and working in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada.