Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Declining numbers of women candidates for Calgary City Council

In my understanding of democracy, it functions best when the full range of perspectives in the community can be heard as a part of the democratic dialogue. In a “representative democracy” like ours is supposed to be, this means that the representatives should probably roughly match the makeup of the population they are to represent.

Unfortunately, this is very far from the case in Calgary.

Taking just one attribute of the population — gender — our elected officials don’t even come close to matching the population. Roughly half the people in Calgary are women; but only 20% of our City Council, and only 17% of candidates in the current election, are women. Further, none of the candidates or elected representatives are identified as trans.
  • 20% of the outgoing Calgary City Council are women (3 out of 15).
  • 17.24% of City Council candidates in the October 21, 2013, municipal election are women (10 out of 58).
  • 40% of City Council seats have only male candidates (6 out of 15).
  • Only 1 City Council seat has more than one female candidate — Ward 7 with 2 (out of 4).
In contrast, a significantly higher percentage of School Board candidates are women:
  • 56.52% of Public School Board Trustee candidates are women (13 out of 23).
  • 42.86% of Separate (Catholic) School Board Trustee candidates are women (6 out of 14).

Why so few women?

The following factors are generalizations, not absolutes. There are certainly exceptions. Some men face some of these, but to a lesser extent than women in general. Not all women face all of these, and not necessarily to a considerable extent on an individual basis.

However, the overall effect is a considerably larger set of hurdles and barriers for women to overcome to enter, and stay in, political life than men face. Trans people face these problems and more.

• It is rare for a male candidate’s appearance to be commented on. For women, it is rare for it not to be discussed — and it is often one of the first things mentioned (especially in media).

• It is typically more expensive, in terms of personal costs, for women to run than men. Really. Social expectations for women’s appearance virtually demand the use of makeup, expensive wardrobes, and hair-styling, in order to be “taken seriously”. Men, while still expected to “dress nicely” are held to much lower standards of appearance.

• Sexist social attitudes are still prevalent in our society. Women who “dare” to stand for public office face derision just for that (where men are often lauded for having the “courage” to stand for office). Women are still seen as “less capable” than men by our social institutions (as exemplified by the fact that women in Canada receive an average of roughly 70% of the income men do for the same work).

• Gendered child-care expectations mean that women who have or intend to have children are expected to have more responsibility for taking care of those children, leaving significantly less time to pursue public life. If a parenting woman chooses to run for office, she will often face negativity for “choosing politics over her children” — something that almost never is suggested of parenting men in politics.

• Women in the public eye face higher rates of being targeted for violence and sexual harassment.

There are other factors not covered here, but those should be sufficient to illustrate the point of this post.

So, what are some things we can do?

• Acknowledge that this is a problem if we actually want democratic representation.

• Build our understanding of the problem and spread awareness.

• Work to diminish, and ultimately eliminate, the factors that make it harder for women to participate.

• Support women candidates and volunteer for their campaigns.

• If you’re a woman or trans person: Run for office.

• Recognize that gender is far from the only attribute used to diminish the participation of parts of the community. Ethnicity, disability, age, financial status, and more, are all factors that have disproportionate levels of representation.

• When you see or hear something that is a factor diminishing women’s participation: Speak out. Ask people why they are commenting on female candidates’ appearance rather than their policies. Write letters to media when they talk about how women are dressed rather than how women are campaigning.

Ways to connect on this issue

Equal Voice is “a national, bilingual, multi-partisan organization dedicated to electing more women to all levels of political office in Canada.”

Women Suffrage and Beyond: Confronting the Democratic Deficit is a set of events happening in Calgary from October 3 to 4.

Comparing 2010 and 2013 City Council elections

The total number of candidates for City Council for 2013 is 62.1% of what it was in 2010, but the number of women running saw an even greater decline, being 52.6% of the number who ran in 2010.
2010 2013
Female incumbent: 4 3
Female candidates: 19 10
Total candidates: 95 59
Percentage of women on the ballot: 20% 17%
Number of City Council seats with no female candidate: 3 6
Number of City Council seats with more than one female candidate: 3 1

To see a list of all candidates in the election, you can visit the Calgary Democracy website (that I run).