I love International Women’s Day. I enjoy wearing purple, humming “Bread and Roses,” and attending local events.
But this year, March 8 brought two things that gave me pause.
On that day, Margaret Mitchell passed away. She was a champion of all that International Women’s Day represents and she dedicated her life to social issues and women’s rights, whether organizing in her community or serving as East Vancouver MP (1979 to 1993).
In 1982 Mitchell got national attention by provoking howls of merriment in Parliament. Did she make a good joke? No, she was speaking about domestic abuse, how one in 10 husbands regularly beat their wives. She was shocked by the response and rebuked the MP’s — this is hardly a laughing matter, she said.
Thus began the public (and continuing) conversation about spousal abuse, sparked by her comments and those of thousands of Canadians who were also shocked and scolded their MPs.
An apology to Mitchell and Canadian women was made the next day in Parliament. Without Mitchell’s voice, who knows when that issue would have been raised?
Then, as I was feeling grateful for the many contributions of Margaret Mitchell, I ran across the headline: “More than half of people in Canada don’t believe women need to be better represented in politics, a new survey suggests.” I thought, are you kidding? We need more voices like Margaret’s.
My first impulse was to dismiss the survey. But it was released by Equal Voice, a national non-partisan organization dedicated to increasing women’s participation in politics. I imagined groans of disappointment as they released the survey. More work to do!
Beyond the headline, there’s more to learn. For example, the people surveyed believed that women occupy 31 per cent of the seats in Parliament. On that basis, they concluded there are “too many” or “the right number” of women. In fact, women only occupy 26 per cent of federal seats. Globally, Canada ranks 45th in women’s participation, behind Serbia, Mozambique, Afghanistan and Rwanda, to name a few.
What about local governments? Across Canada, 28 per cent of councillors are women, and 18 per cent of mayors are women (as of May 2015).
In B.C., we’re doing better than that average — 36 per cent of councillors and 28 per cent of mayors are women. In Nelson, women are generally well-represented, and of course we have our first woman mayor.
I also found it intriguing that people thought 30 per cent was enough. The United Nations might agree! Their position is that a critical mass of at least 30 per cent women is needed before decisions are made that address women’s concerns and before political institutions begin to change the way they do business. In line with this, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities has tried various initiatives to achieve their target of 30 percent participation of women by 2026.
Personally, I think 30 per cent is a good start, but since women represent more than 50 per cent of the population, why stop at 30? Many voters see the value in mirror representation — they want their councils to mirror the make-up of the community. That includes women but also a good representation of diversity in age, ethnicity, social standing, etc.
Tali Mendelberg, a professor at Princeton University, has studied gender dynamics in groups. She’s observed that in “majority rules” situations, the competitive dynamic tends to silence women. They are interrupted by men, often in a hostile manner, and eventually keep quiet to avoid humiliation or hurt.
But, Mendelberg says, when both genders are represented equally, women will talk as much as men and be interrupted less often. She also says decisions will generally reflect more generosity and compassion, and less of an individualistic approach. Another reason to go for 50.
I found it interesting that the Equal Voice survey also identified a significant difference in policy priorities between men and women.
The survey found that men, if they ran for office, were more likely to focus on reducing debt, cutting corporate taxes, and spending more on public infrastructure.
Women, on the hand, were more likely to say they’d campaign on making housing more affordable, improving public healthcare, and taking action to address climate change.
And that’s why we need women at the table. As well as talents, knowledge and insights, they bring women’s experience and concerns, which are not the same as men’s. Margaret Mitchell, for one, taught us that.
So why don’t more women run for office? And what can be done about it? That’s a topic for a whole other column!
Donna Macdonald served 19 years on Nelson City Council until 2014. She is the author of Surviving City Hall, published in 2016.