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Across Atlantic Canada, women represent 21 per cent of elected officials overall at provincial and federal levels.
In Prince Edward Island, there are no female MPs.
To date, no provincial or territorial legislative assembly has ever achieved gender parity.
For St. John’s, N.L., deputy mayor Sheilagh O’Leary, that’s a problem.
When she was first elected to city council in 2009, there were two other women on council. A short while later, after she made a bid for mayor and lost, council was left with no women.
“I remember going to one or two of the proclamation events during that time frame, and just looking around the room and just knowing that there was a voice that was completely missing at the table.”
When a byelection came up, O’Leary ran again – this time as a councillor – and won.
“At that point, I was the only woman on council. And I’ll tell you, the difference between that period of time when I was the only voice on council as a woman, to where we are now – the conversation has completely shifted.”
O’Leary said when women’s voices are represented in politics, “there is an incredible difference.”
Currently, St. John’s city council has near gender parity at 45 per cent. It’s the most gender-equal city council of the four Atlantic provinces’ capital cities. Comparatively, Fredericton city council has just eight per cent women, Halifax 13 per cent and Charlottetown 18 per cent.
“I find it a much more respectful working environment,” said O’Leary. “We talk about issues with a different lens completely because women come with a whole other set of values, perspectives and workloads.”
O’Leary said she’s noticed city council works more collaboratively and respectfully since it’s become more gender balanced. She’s also noticed more family-friendly practices in place for councillors with children, whether they are male or female.
These are the kinds of changes Gina Gill Hartmann is striving for as Atlantic regional coordinator with Equal Voice, a national, non-partisan organization dedicated to electing more women to all levels of political office in Canada.
Gill Hartmann said the benefits to society are noticeable when there’s gender parity in political decision-making. She points to the federal cabinet as an example.
Since there’s been parity in cabinet, she said there have been many family-friendly policies implemented for the public. A woman’s partner can now take seven weeks leave from work after the woman gives birth, and a harassment policy was developed for politicians.
“There is evidence to show that a lot of women put in the policies that are critical to citizens and to work or family issues.”
But getting more women elected is a challenge.
Gill Hartmann said women need to be asked more often than men to run for office. She said women tend to face greater financial barriers during campaigns, are more often portrayed as rookies by the media, and they have increased difficulty achieving work/life balance because they typically take on more responsibilities at home.
O’Leary echoed that sentiment, noting when she first got into politics her youngest child was four years old and she was a single parent.
“I’d carry him like a football under my arm to public meetings,” she said.
“When you support women everybody rises together.”
-St. John’s, N.L., deputy mayor Sheilagh O’Leary
Gill Hartmann and Equal Voice are working to reduce these barriers for women by working with government to encourage implementation of policies that break those barriers.
She said New Brunswick put forward an initiative that worked to increase the number of female politicians in their last provincial election.
“They recognized that people say, ‘Hey, get more women in politics’, but what was happening is women were running in unwinnable ridings.”
New Brunswick government amended the political financing law to alter the per-vote public subsidy for parties, awarding 25-per-cent more for each vote for a female candidate. Parties were not only rewarded for having female candidates, but for ensuring they ran in winnable ridings.
“That’s a win in my books. They’re recognizing that we want diversity, we want more women at the table, so let’s do something about it,” said Gill Hartmann.
Before the election, 16 per cent of the legislative assembly in New Brunswick were women. After the election, that percentage rose to 22 per cent.
“It’s not ideal – it’s not what I would love to see – but it’s a step forward.”
Gill Hartmann said everyone can help increase gender parity in politics. She said a big way to help is to volunteer with a female politician’s campaign.
“Campaigning at all levels and in all provinces is a lot of work and a lot of money. So, that’s kind of where women hit the barrier, you know, half-way through. They’re like, ‘I’ve got to go back to my job, I’ve got kids to feed.’”
How you can help
She said other than donating time, people could also consider donating money or expertise; for example, graphic designers could offer to design campaign signs.
Helping to decrease the gender gap in politics could also be as simple as considering voting for women and reading about their policies. Gill Hartmann said too often people vote based on name recognition rather than on looking into a candidate’s platform.
“Ask her to run – I think that’s the biggest one,” concluded Gill Hartmann.
O’Leary said gender parity in politics is an issue that transcends individual parties.
“For me, it doesn’t matter what your political leaning is – I think it’s extremely important to support women because when you support women everybody rises together, and I think that society benefits from it.”
“When you support women everyone rises together”
In honour of International Women’s Day and the 2019 theme of #BalanceforBetter our entire edition has been crafted by women, about women and for women in Atlantic Canada.
In the meantime, we’re also making a commitment to diversity and gender equality in this publication. Whether it’s through the writers we hire, the people we interview or artists we collaborate with, diversity and equality remains an integral part of the stories we tell and who gets to tell them.
As Gloria Steinem, world-renowned feminist, journalist and activist once explained, “The story of women's struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organization but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights.”