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Still too few women in local politics

The Vancouver Sun by Cathy Huth, Carolyn Jack, Catherine Murray and Janet Wiegand 6 December 2011

On the Monday after the recent civic elections, The Vancouver Sun celebrated equality on its front page: two big photos side by side, the same size and scale, of a woman — Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts — and a man — Vancouver’s Gregor Robertson — who had won the opportunity to lead their cities.

But a closer look at the election results in the Lower Mainland indicates that all is not so equal in terms of the number of women elected.

After a review of the 2011 unofficial results from The Vancouver Sun’s tally published Nov. 21, Equal Voice B.C., a multi-partisan organization dedicated to improving the representation of women in politics, found that women continue to lag behind men in getting seats in our city halls and town councils.

Of the 29 municipalities and three electoral areas in the Greater Vancouver Regional District, women make up 34 per cent (65 out of 192) of the councillors elected. This is an actual decrease from the number of women elected in 2008 (66 out of 192 councillors).

The United Nations maintains that a critical mass of one-third female representation is required in order for legislatures to produce public policy representing women’s concerns. Twelve districts fell short of the benchmark advocated by the United Nations — more than a third of our cities and towns. Some districts have little-to-no female representation at the municipal level. In 2008, Port Coquitlam had a representation of 17 per cent (one of six councillors) but this fell to zero when no women were elected this year.

Vancouver also remains one of the few major Canadian cities which has yet to elect a female mayor.

Despite these results, there may be some reasons to be hopeful. This civic election brought an increase in the number of female mayors elected in the GVRD, from 17 per cent in 2008 (five of 29 mayors elected) to 28 per cent in 2011 (eight of 29 mayors elected). And 20 of the 32 municipalities elected at least one-third female councillors. Some districts, including Surrey, West Vancouver, Pitt Meadows, and Maple Ridge achieved parity or better.

According to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, which has pressed for ways to increase success rates for female candidates, these results significantly exceed the national average of 16 per cent for female mayors in May 2011 and 25 per cent for female councillors.

Such gains, though, should not make us complacent and accept the status quo. Many of Greater Vancouver-area districts remain below parity, and even others below the United Nations standard of one-third female elected officials.

Canada continues to lag behind other democratic countries in terms of female representation; Canada ranks 38th on the Inter-Parliamentary Union List of Women in National Parliaments, bettered by countries such as Afghanistan, Uganda, and Rwanda.

Women provide an important and often unique perspective in politics. The United Nations has emphasized that equality in decision-making is essential to the empowerment of women. And our government should be one that reflects its population, signalling a genuine partnership between men and women.

With the achievements we’ve seen in some areas, like Surrey and Pitt Meadows, we can see that a strong role for women in politics is possible, and that citizens are willing to vote for women when they appear on the ballot. A poll by Equal Voice and Environics in 2008 showed that 85 per cent of Canadians support “efforts to increase the number of women elected in this country.”

How to best achieve equal representation continues to be debated, but we should take this opportunity to learn what works and what can, and should, be done to ensure greater equality in politics. Here are some things we can all do to increase the democratic representation of women:

If you’re a woman, consider running.

If you are a man or woman, encourage a woman to run.

Take an active role in supporting female candidates with your time or money.

Some of the results coming out of the recent election give us reasons to be encouraged, but the high profile of some individual female politicians should not distract from the reality that women continue to be under-represented at every level of government in Canada.

As we celebrate the swearing-in of our new local representatives this week, let’s learn what we can from this election and continue to work toward getting more women elected in 2014.

Cathy Huth, Carolyn Jack, Catherine Murray and Janet Wiegand are members of the B.C. chapter of Equal Voice, a multi-partisan national organization dedicated to promoting the election of more women in Canada.