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As Parliament studies barriers for women in politics, MP launches online ‘campaign school’

The Edmonton Journal with Jane Hilderman 03 July 2018

A former NDP leadership candidate is launching an online course to teach women how to get involved in politics.

Manitoba MP Niki Ashton, who ran for her party’s leadership last year, is holding a series of seven online seminars aimed at young progressive women, covering political organizing, fundraising, campaign management, candidacy, media training, youth issues and “issue-based advocacy” from mid-July through mid-August.

“You see a lot of women involved in grassroots campaigns, grassroots politics. And that’s excellent, that’s really important. But we also need to see that translated into electoral politics,” said Ashton. The classes are about “improving their toolkit,” she said, adding she can “count on one hand,” for example, the women she knows who are heading up fundraising on campaigns.

The federal NDP is covering overhead for the program and website, called Our Movement, although people volunteered their time to put it together, Ashton said. It is specifically being targeted to New Democrats, mainly on social media, although Ashton said they aren’t “excluding” others who are interested.

The House of Commons Status of Women committee is currently studying what barriers exist for women in politics.

At a hearing last month, Joanne Bernard, a cabinet minister in Nova Scotia from 2013 to 2017 and the first LGBTQ person elected to its provincial legislature, noted “campaign schools” help women learn the political ropes. “That networking is absolutely crucial. The mentoring is second to none,” she said. Deborah Grey, who as leader of the Reform Party in 2000 became the first female opposition leader in the Commons, agreed with Bernard.

During campaigns, women experience door-knocking differently than their male colleagues, the committee heard. Natalie Pon, a longtime conservative volunteer in Alberta, said female candidates and volunteers are disproportionately asked about their marital status and kids — a reminder that for many, it’s “a surprise” to see women are involved in politics, she said. “Politics is a daunting exercise. I don’t need to explain that to anyone here, but these kinds of questions can seriously cause someone — anyone, but particularly women — to seriously doubt their ability to do the job, because society is questioning it,” said Pon.

Emmanuella Lambropoulos, a 27-year-old Montreal MP elected in a byelection last year, said she was constantly asked whether she was old enough or experienced enough to run for politics. She said she felt a male candidate would not have faced the same scrutiny. “These are things that wasted the time in which I could have been selling my platform and talking about ideas that are important. Instead, I was just trying to justify being there at their door,” she said.

The executive director of Samara Centre for Democracy, Jane Hilderman, shared unpublished findings from an exit survey of MPs who left office in 2015.

“Broadly speaking, many of these women reported that they felt their credibility and their authority as a candidate and as an MP were often more open to doubt than those of their male counterparts,” said Hilderman. Young women felt this dynamic most acutely, she said.

The survey also identified practical problems at Parliament, such as a lack of daycare spots and too few changing tables on the Hill.

Ashton gave birth to twins in October. “I would say that we need to do a lot better when it comes to Parliament, to support new moms and new parents,” she said. A lack of daycare options represents a “huge barrier” to young women who want to enter politics and have children, she said, tying the issue to her support for universal childcare. “I can see how it would be an impossible situation for many women and we need to get serious about it.”