Changes needed to make public office sustainable for women

Letters to the Editor (The Guardian)
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Alberta Premier Alison Redford announces her resignation in Edmonton on March 19. Redford had been struggling to deal with unrest in her Progressive Conservative caucus over her leadership style and questionable expenses.

By Dawn Wilson (commentary)

In 1993 Catherine Callbeck made history as the first woman in P.E.I. and Canada to be elected premier. Twenty years later, history was made again with a record number of six women premiers and territorial leaders in Canada, resulting in more than 85 per cent of the Canadian population being governed by a woman leader. Considering women comprise 52 per cent of the Canadian population and only 25 per cent of Members of Parliament, the record number of women premiers was a hopeful sign of progress for women in government.  

The resignation of Alberta Premier Alison Redford, following an election loss by Eva Aariak in Nunavut and Kathy Dunderdale stepping down in Newfoundland and Labrador, has brought the number of women premiers down to just three, sparking conversation around the country on challenges facing women in politics. Early research by the P.E.I. Coalition for Women in Government revealed that the electorate of P.E.I. is not discriminating against women in the polls. In the four provincial elections between 1993 and 2003, women were more likely to win over men.  It’s clear that voters across Canada are not discriminating against women either: both Alison Redford and Kathy Dunderdale led their parties to victory during provincial elections. Yet, both were forced to resign before completing their terms.   

In a recent Ottawa Citizen op-ed, Nancy Peckford, ED of Equal Voice asks, “Are Canada’s female premiers enjoying some particularly bad luck or is there something else at play?” Peckford notes the resignations of Redford and Dunderdale highlight the systemic barriers inherit in political institutions, including sexism and outdated political structures.

She encourages us to use this opportunity to consider what changes are needed to make the job of serving in public office more sustainable.    

Previous research by the Coalition for Women in Government provides some solutions. Over the last 10 years our conversations with prospective women candidates indicate that one of the main reasons women do not run for public office is the perceived lack of work/life balance for politicians.

In 2009 the coalition undertook a national research project titled, “Whose Job is it Anyway? The Life and Work of an MLA” that examined the work/life balance for MLAs across the country. In total 17 recommendations for government and political parties were put forward.   

Several of these recommendations call for changes to out-of-date policies and procedures to encourage a healthy work/life balance. Better balance would benefit men as well as women, especially parents of young children and MLAs with caregiving responsibilities, including Premier Ghiz. These recommendations included: eliminating the evening hours of the legislature, planning more standing committee meetings outside Charlottetown, and establishing a caregiver benefit to MLAs with child or elder caregiving responsibilities. One recommendation, to create a Legislative and Standing Committee Calendar with agreed upon dates for breaks, has been working well to help MLAs make plans — and also to help members of the public to plan for participating in the political process and making their voices heard with their MLAs.

Modernizing the system with these recommendations will help address the needs and retention of current and future MLAs traveling from outside Charlottetown and those with young families. Having more women elected will bring a greater diversity of experience to the decision-making table, increasing the potential for policy and programs that speak to women’s experiences and lives. The P.E.I. Coalition for Women in Government remains committed to increasing the opportunities for women to be elected to all levels of government.    

 

Dawn Wilson is executive director of P.E.I. Coalition for Women in Government

Organizations: P.E.I. Coalition for Women, Ottawa Citizen, Legislative and Standing Committee Calendar

Geographic location: Canada, Alberta, Nunavut Newfoundland and Labrador Charlottetown

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