The Vancouver Sun with Ellen Woodsworth 18 April 2018
Shauna Sylvester says she spent long nights mulling over her Vancouver mayoral bid, knowing what she’d be facing.
After announcing on April 5 her intention to run as an independent, the director of Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue says she faced a barrage of criticism about her gender and appearance.
Still, days later, Sylvester asked members of the private Facebook group Girl Gang how they deal with such criticism and “minimize the image stuff.” Girl Gang is 5,700 Metro Vancouver women in media, communications and related jobs, who help each other with networking and professional development. (A member forwarded Sylvester’s post to Postmedia.)
“Over the last week, I’m increasingly hearing from men that it is going to be very difficult to win as a woman, no surprise,” she wrote.
“I’ve been told to tone down references to being a woman, or maternal glue, which I used in my launch speech, and a number of men and woman have told me I need to get a haircut and present a more streamlined image.”
In an interview Wednesday, Sylvester said she’d been reluctant to speak with a reporter about the post because she didn’t want gender to become a focus of her campaign. But given that she hopes to become the first female mayor in the City of Vancouver’s 132 years, she knew it was unavoidable.
“It’s been like this for years and many women have had to deal with it,” she said. “I didn’t want that to become the story. I really wish we were beyond it but we’re not. I guess to that extent, it’s a story. It’s not surprising.”
Sylvester declined to discuss the dozens of responses to her Facebook post, citing concern about the group’s privacy. She said decades of experience in executive positions have taught her that women who go into politics often face criticism over whether they have “the sensibility” to enter a political realm where power is “largely defined by white men.” Focus then turns to their appearance and an assumption of inexperience, she said.
Sylvester said she enjoys campaigning — deep policy conversations with business groups and in constituents’ living rooms — and said she hopes that comments about her gender, clothing and hairstyle will be drowned out by her ideas to improve the city.
“I want to spend time talking about policy and issues,” said Sylvester, who listed affordable housing, building a connected and safe city, the economy and resiliency as her key priorities.
Sylvester is right to pull the attention back to her platform and plans, said Ellen Woodsworth, chair of Women Transforming Cities, which is working to eliminate barriers to women participating in local government. She said the media and public ought to do the same.
People tend to criticize male politicians on their policies and work, whereas women are judged on their appearance, family status and tone of voice, said Woodsworth, a former two-term COPE councillor.
“It’s actually a way to try to invalidate women’s voices in politics,” she said.
“What we have observed — and there are studies that have shown this — is women actually run for political office because they’re concerned about something in the community or politically, whereas men tend to run as a career move.”
A report released last month by Atalanta, which advocates for gender equality in politics, found that female politicians face a significantly larger volume of social-media discussion about their appearance and family life.
“While male and female politicians had similar levels of derogatory comments, based on percentages, women were three times more likely to see derogatory comments directly related to their gender,” the report found.
Laura Ballance, a public-relations expert who has for decades worked on political campaigns including Dianne Watts’ bid for the B.C. Liberals’ leadership, said that when it comes to campaigning, women have always been treated differently. But she’s seen an escalation in the vitriol over the past five years, particularly with anonymous, “online adult bullying.”
The advice she would give any politician: “Ignore it, stay on the high ground and keep focused on the issues.”
But looking more broadly, unless sexism in politics is regularly confronted, nothing will change, Ballance said. She worries that democracy suffers when discussion about someone’s hairstyle comes ahead of respectful debate about serious issues.
“If it discourages the next great mayor, the next premier, the next prime minister from running, then shame on all of us,” she said.
“Because if that person decides, ‘I don’t want to face that scrutiny over what I look like,’ then that’s all of our loss.”