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Ladies in legislature

A look into why more women don't take the plunge into politics

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In a society where politics is often perceived as a man's game, numerous Canadians are looking for more female players to help draw up the game plan.

The Alberta Liberals publicly released a campaign to promote more involvement from women in provincial politics early September. The Take Our Place campaign was created to level out the gender imbalance that currently exists in the Alberta legislature.

Although women have always made up roughly half the population of Canada, they hold, on average, only 20 per cent of elected positions. In Alberta, only two of 19 cabinet ministers are women.

"What we are trying to do is encourage women to be part of the political process," said Liberal MLA for Calgary-Varsity, Harry Chase. "We want women to have the opportunity to be in the front line of the direction our province takes."

Take Our Place campaign chair and Liberal Edmonton-Centre MLA, Laurie Blakeman stressed while the initiative intends to recruit more women to run in the next election for the Alberta Liberals, the wider understanding being that all levels of government need to get more women running for political office.

"The bigger problem right now is that women aren't coming forward,"said Blakeman.

University of Calgary political science professor Brenda O'Neill specializes in gender and politics. While she also advocates for more female politicians, she noted it is not a matter of what women can do that men can't.

"It's a question of justice," said O'Neill. "Democracy involves people participating in collective decision-making, and if only 20 per cent are women in the legislature, then there is definitely an inequality."

This inequality in representation extends not just to women, but to ethnic and religious minorities as well.

"The disadvantage in societies that are less than inclusive when it comes to women is that their society is not working to the best of their abilities," said Conservative party Calgary-Bow MLA Alana DeLong. "But what's really more important is getting the best person to do the best job. That's way more important than having a balance of men and women."

The factors contributing to the undersized representation of women in politics have been well examined. At the height of the women's movement in the 1980s, women's issues were a huge priority on political agendas, explained O'Neill. However, the formal movement in Canada has hit a plateau and is struggling due to lack of funding and low prioritization.

As well, there is an ongoing cultural gender difference between how girls and boys are raised to think of politics as a career option.

"One could say, there is nothing that keeps a woman from running, and that is true," said O'Neill. "Except we know that in political socialization, people tend not to tell their daughters, 'you should run for office.' They are more likely to tell their son that."

Even today, women only make roughly 70-75 cents on every dollar a man makes, according to O'Neill. The general female economic disadvantage combined with the traditional gender role of women being responsible for the home are only a few factors that drastically dissuade many women from seeking positions in public office.

"Going into politics is an enormous personal commitment; it's not an easy choice in life," said DeLong. "As women, we have to watch ourselves and make sure we're not taking the easy way out for whatever reason."

DeLong acknowledged the factors that may hinder a woman's political ambitions, but said she feels strongly that her gender has never been a weak point in her career.

Chase echoed this sentiment.

"There is no doubt men and women are equal in fortitude," he said.

"When I was elected, there was certainly no disadvantage for me being a woman," said DeLong. "There was no special hoop I had to jump over or anything."

In fact, DeLong found it interesting that it is not the politics, but the media that makes her very aware of the disadvantages or stereotypes of her gender.

"What I find with the media, is that they will ask me questions on things they find to be female issues, like arts, when it is economics that I have a tremendous background in," she said.

The Take Our Place campaign supports and encourages new candidates through a mentor team of current and former female Alberta Liberal MLAs.

"We have a number of qualified individuals including our program chair, and a number of researchers and assistants to provide that kind of first-hand political experience needed," said Chase.

Blakeman clarified that this initiative began long before it was released to the media.

"Last fall, I sent a letter to every female municipal counselor and school board trustee saying, 'your elections are coming in October, if you're not going to run again, would you consider running for provincial politics?'"

Blakeman is currently following up on the responses she received with one-on-one meetings. The mentor team hopes to identify barriers to political participation as well as help reduce or eliminate these barriers for new female candidates.

O'Neill voiced her skepticism regarding the method of this program. While she agreed mentors are very important for networking and discussion, she also wondered if that alone would be enough to make a significant difference.

"To really increase the number of women in politics in Canada, we have to centralize the process," said O'Neill. "If you want half men and half women, you have to have the central party with the major list that decides who gets to run. Otherwise, we have 83 constituencies deciding separately, and while it could end up half and half, we see more often than not, it doesn't happen like that."

Blakeman disagreed.

"I'm not in favor of the centralized system," she said. "I resent it on behalf of women, because it makes it look like women can't get there by themselves, and they can. I know they can."

Instead, Blakeman recommended a compromise of centralization and constituency independence.

"One of the criteria [in the Conservative central committee] that I did put in place is contested nomination and we would like to have at least one women running [for the Liberal nomination in each constituency]," said Blakeman. "So we were able to put that in place centrally without impeding local decision-making process, which is the best of both worlds."

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Comments

Good article, and very interesting. Nice to see Mr. Chase, he was my homeroom teacher at FEO