Caregiving costs hold women back from seeking office

Mitch MacDonald comment@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on March 2, 2016

Dawn Wilson, executive director of the P.E.I. Coalition for Women in Government, presents several recommendations to the special committee on democratic renewal yesterday at the J. Angus MacLean building. Wilson's major recommendation involved reimbursing caregiving expenses incurred while on the campaign trail as a way to encourage more female candidates.

©MITCH MACDONALD/THE GUARDIAN

Reimbursing caregiving costs incurred while on the campaign trail will encourage more women to run for public office, an advocate told a special committee looking at electoral reform yesterday.

Dawn Wilson, executive director of the P.E.I. Coalition for Women in Government, made the recommendation during a presentation to the special committee on democratic renewal at the J. Angus MacLean building on Tuesday.

Wilson said the coalition had interviewed women candidates from all parties following the 2015 provincial election, with many pointing to a financial barrier preventing others from running.

"This can make it challenging for candidates with caregiving responsibilities to take part in events and campaign effectively," said Wilson, noting that caregiving costs are not eligible for reimbursement under the Election Expenses Act.

Wilson asked the committee to look at amending the current act to allow candidates to claim both child and elder care costs.

"Making changes like this would not only make it easier for women to run but would also support male candidates who have caregiving responsibilities," she said. "This will contribute to the fairness of the act and allow P.E.I. to support gender equity."

P.E.I. is currently among the lowest in the country in terms of gender diversity with women making up 18.5 per cent of provincial MLAs.

However, it's not due to a lack of voter support.

Wilson said women traditionally do well once nominated as a candidate and that most voters tend to support a party rather than the individual candidate.

"The biggest barrier to electing women lies with getting womens' names on the ballot in the first place," she said.

MLAs Janice Sherry and Paula Biggar, who both sit on the committee, agreed that most Islanders approached on the campaign trail are welcoming regardless of gender.

Sherry also voiced some concern for "bending or changing the rules" in an attempt to achieve a 50/50 split of men and women in any field or industry.

"As a woman who was elected and serves publicly, I find that my heart sinks a little bit whenever we talk about that," she said. "There are lots of women who are extremely confident and would make great representatives for their communities and for their province. But they have to want it first."

While parity may not be achievable in every profession, Wilson said it's an important aspect to strive for among elected representatives.

"Because they are elected to represent the population, and women are 52 per cent of that population," she said.

The coalition also recommended that the Election Expenses Act be amended to provide for a subsidy to candidates winning at least 10 per cent of the vote within their riding.

Wilson noted that 17 women candidates in P.E.I.'s last provincial election reached the 15 per cent threshold to receive reimbursement of election expenses.

If lowered, four more candidates would have been eligible for reimbursement, she said.

"That might sound like a small number, but these four women were more likely to be younger, first-time candidates, and some had young children," said Wilson. "Having the ability to recoup some election expenses may make a huge difference when women are already disadvantaged economically compared to men."

The coalition's final recommendation was that the committee ensure a "gender and diversity lens" be applied to the electoral renewal process moving forward.