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Female Senators shake up Washington

The Ottawa Citizen by Nancy Peckford and Raylene Lang-Dion 23 October 2013 

As the world watched last week to see if the fragile negotiations inside the United States Senate would finally stick and avert the irreparable harm forecasted to the global economy in the event of a U.S. loan default, Time Magazine reported that “Women are the only adults left in Washington.”


Well, yes, as it turns out. A small group of gutsy and resilient women from both sides of the Senate was key to turning an entrenched and dangerous stalemate into an opportunity for meaningful negotiations focused on pragmatic outcomes.

With a deal in place, the praise abounded. Republican John McCain declared that: “Leadership, I must fully admit, was provided primarily from the women of the Senate.” Democrat Mark Pryor noted that “We’re all just glad they allowed us to tag along so we could see how (negotiation’s) done.”

Time Magazine reported that 10 female senators were not only responsible for breaking this rather calamitous impasse, but were the architects of the vast majority of critically needed legislation this past year. The foundation for such collegiality among elected women in a rabidly partisan environment includes three golden rules: female U.S. Senators refrain from publicly criticizing each other; they make a genuine effort to get to know each other outside of the confines of Congressional life; and lastly, they keep foremost in their minds that they are bringing their life experiences as women to the job, experiences that remain woefully under-represented in a Congress that is over 80 per cent male.

As the national multi-partisan organization dedicated to electing more women in Canada, Equal Voice — in its quest to ensure that women take their rightful place in government — aims to foster a constructive collegiality on this side of the border. At our event this Wednesday, Equal Voice will create a space where women, regardless of party or policy position, can connect with one another in a less high- stakes environment. Minister Kellie Leitch will share the stage with three female opposition colleagues as they collectively reflect on the reality of being a female politician. Conversations may be fleeting, but they may make the difference between MPs actually picking up the phone to find some common ground.

Historically, committee work provided MPs and Senators with the opportunity to build these relationships, but as Parliament has become more polarized, genuine opportunities for conversation and debate have diminished. And the effects of this shift in political culture are far reaching. When Equal Voice asks women why they may be hesitant to run, including those likely star candidates, the answer often is “will I actually be able to get anything done?”

Clearly, these women possess the qualifications, the talent and the commitment to the issues. Canada is teeming with them as the current crop of female MPs demonstrates. However, many other women extremely well suited to political life are taking a pass. So, while Canada achieved a record high in the percentage of female candidates running for the major political parties in the last federal election (just over 30 per cent), far more women need to run so that Canada can surpass the current 25 per cent mark in the House of Commons.

Not only do more women need to step up, but so do our political institutions. Serving in politics is an enormous sacrifice — and honour. Yet, Parliament has yet to fully adapt to the increasing diversity in the House. A nursing infant in the Chamber caused a firestorm of confusion in 2012. The hours on the job are unrelenting. Spousal/family travel is coming under increasing scrutiny — despite the fact that it helps families stay intact. There is no clarity on how MPs take a short break after giving birth, or experiencing illness. Outside of a constant onslaught of constituency work and the occasional private member’s bill, many MPs grapple with how to truly make a difference. Legislatures across the country offer a patchwork of models or no model at all. It wasn’t until MPP Lisa MacLeod advocated for family friendly hours for Queen’s Park in 2008 that late night sitting ceased to be a regular feature. How many other legislatures have followed suit?

So, in 2014, Equal Voice plans to evaluate Canada’s legislatures for their responsiveness to work life balance issues, not to mention genuine opportunities to make an impact. The Samara Institute has plenty of insights from its exit surveys with MPs. We hope that in casting a pan-Canadian glance, we can shed light on what is going on right now, as well as making recommendations on what could be improved. Furthermore, EV will actively reach out to those talented women who may have dismissed politics’ potential to see how we can encourage and equip more of them to run.

In acknowledging the undeniably positive impact of the 20 women in the U.S. Senate, McCain added: “Imagine if there were 50 of them?”

Our point exactly.

Nancy Peckford is executive director and Raylene Lang-Dion is national chair of Equal Voice, a national, multipartisan organization dedicated to electing more women.