There’s not enough women in politics.
Studies have shown at least 30 percent of elected officials must be female before policy begins to adequately reflect the concerns of women.
But studies also show women in Canada represent only 15 percent of corporate boards, 18 percent of mayors, and 28 percent of councillors.
In Northwestern Ontario, only 26 percent of councillors are women.
On top of this, women need to be asked to run for office or a ward three times more often than a male does.
Because of this, “Women in Politics”–a committee dedicated to inspiring women in Northern Ontario to be politically active in all levels of government–is delivering the Women’s Leadership Project, which is funded, in part, by Status of Women Canada and the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corp. (NOHFC).
Part of the project has been symposiums like the one held last Wednesday evening at Confederation College here, where Thunder Bay councillor-at-large Rebecca Johnson, along with Fort Frances Couns. Wendy Brunetta and June Caul, shared their experiences and offered advice on both running for office and life while in office.
Johnson said she got into politics because of her grandmother, a suffragist who fought for women’s right to vote.
“She always taught me you need to get [involved] and always be sure that what you’re doing is what you need to do as a woman,” said Johnson, who first was elected councillor at large in 2003.
She also, among many other roles, served as president of the Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce for 10 years and a founding member of the “Women in Politics” committee.
“Women are not 50 percent of boards, they’re not 50 percent of elected governments, and so as women, we need to stand up and make sure that we are represented there,” Johnson stressed.
“The more women that run, the more that will win, and we’ll eventually get to that 50 percent because we are actually just over 50 percent of the population,” she noted.
“Our councils should be diverse. There’s no question about that.”
Another reason she first got into politics, running for the school board, is because–like many women who get into politics–she was asked to.
Plunging in head-first, Johnson ended up being a trustee for the Lakehead Board of Education for 12 years until not being re-elected, mainly due to her firm yet unpopular stance in favour of closing a school (as an aside, Johnson said the school ended up being closed six months after the election anyway).
“I don’t think you ever lose an election; you just don’t get enough votes,” she reasoned. “There’s a big difference when you’re going to be a politician.
“You don’t ever lose anything because you learn something every time you run.”
Johnson then ran for city council–again because someone asked her to–and has been councillor at large ever since.
Now that she’s had nearly 30 years as an elected politician, Johnson has come to enjoy it.
“It’s a challenge. It gives you a chance to make change,” she noted.
“You have no power–people say you can do all of these things but no, you need half plus one to make a decision–but you do have influence,” she remarked.
“You can work on committees and your ideas can help formulate the decisions of that committee,” Johnson said.
“That’s where you really have the chance to make change in your community and to me, that’s really, really important.”
While Johnson said she personally has not found she’s had many barriers to being a politician, she does know from working with “Women in Politics” that there are barriers.
It costs her $3,000-$4,000 to run for council in Thunder Bay, although that amount won’t be as much in smaller communities.
There’s also the considerable time commitment–the equivalent of having a part-time job, which is even more of a barrier for women who may have to look after their children or their aging parents.
Many women also don’t want to put up with the scrutiny of being in elected office.
“Let me put it this way: half the people like [you] and half the people don’t like you,” Johnson said. “Then on the next issue, half the people that liked you don’t like you, and the ones that didn’t like you, do.
“You know what? You’ve got to learn to live with that. You have to accept criticism,” she stressed, noting people have to accept what’s said about them and she’s found women, generally, have a hard time with that.
Johnson also said it’s vital for a woman to have the support of her family before she runs.
“You are going to be away a whole pile of time, and your family–if you have a spouse, if you have children–you need to know they’re going to be okay with that,” she remarked.
Johnson added her family does not talk to other people about their mother’s council business, and have learned to refer any question they may be asked directly to her.
A candidate also needs the support of their employer in order to accommodate meetings and other council appointments, which often are during the day.
Johnson said it’s also important for a woman to have a mentor to talk to before the election and after it, as well as a campaign team.
If they decide to run, a candidate should have a clear sense of why they’re running and what they’re running for,” she noted.
“Do your homework on the community issues, and when coming up with a platform, keep it focused on only a few issues,” she advised.
On the flip side, not all candidates end up getting elected. If you aren’t elected, you also should think having a “Plan ‘B'”–what you will do next?
Candidates also have to admit to the fact they have an ego–and accept it.
“You like your name in the paper, you like your name on the radio, you like people to speak about you,” Johnson said. “That’s part of being a politician and that’s not wrong.
“But admit it and accept it.”
Johnson said deciding to run is a personal decision and no matter what everybody thinks, “it comes down to what you want.”
“What did you, personally, really, really, really want to do?” she mused. “You know whether it’s the right thing to do or not, and if it isn’t, that’s okay, too.
“Maybe it’s not the right time now in 2018 if you’re going into the municipal election.
“But you have to feel that it’s what you really, truly want to do,” she reiterated. “And no one can make your decision for you except yourself.”
For more information on “Women in Politics” and the Women’s Leadership Project, visit www.paro.ca/support-women/women-politics