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Women who enter politics shouldn’t be subjected to threats and abuse

Calgary Herald by Sue Tomney 18 February 2017

“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” — Margaret Atwood

It is both shocking and unsurprising to learn this week that Premier Rachel Notley received more than 412 threats of harm in an 11-month period, and that 26 of those were forwarded to police for further investigation.

Further, the premier received 19 threats in 2015 alone.

Women entering politics face a scary reality: they will receive threats, they will be harassed and bullied online, in person and through the media because of their gender. The political arena remains unsafe for women and that needs to change.

We hoped 2016 marked a dawn of change for women in politics: Canada achieved gender-parity in cabinet, a first in federal politics; the leader of the official Opposition — a woman — was named the hardest working MP.

Politics seemed to embrace equity, or so we thought. Women in politics continue to be subject to more security incidents and threats than their male counterparts.

Entering public service shouldn’t mean that your weight, what you wear, or your family are up for critique.

“Toughen up.” “It’s part of the job.” And “Stop being so soft,” are just some of the retorts women hear when they try to talk about the sexism and harassment they face. Calgary-North West MLA Sandra Jansen made headlines last November when she read out a few of the threatening messages she’s received since entering politics.

Those who heard her speech, praised her bravery, but nothing changed.

Committing to public service is a sacrifice for anyone who takes it on. That sacrifice shouldn’t be your personal safety, your self-esteem or your confidence. Entering public service shouldn’t mean that your weight, what you wear, or your family are up for critique.

Frankly, this isn’t a political perspective, it’s about respect. It isn’t partisan to call out hateful, misogynistic and threatening language directed at women. From comments about their appearances, using their faces as target practice, or physical threats, it’s a nightmare they have had to accept as part of their job. This is not normal behaviour and this is not acceptable behaviour.

It’s no wonder women struggle with the decision to run for office. It’s a toxic environment where women are held to higher standards than their male colleagues, judged on their looks and why they aren’t at home. The attacks women face don’t only affect them, they affect their families and friends who hear these attacks. Sometimes, a woman’s family becomes the focus of attack and she may choose not to run to protect her loved ones.

Let’s back this up with facts: Angus Reid reported 29 per cent of Canadians agree that a major reason women don’t run for office is because they are held to a higher standard than men. Research indicates that 38 per cent of respondents also believe women don’t run because of family commitments.

How do we address this problem? How do we increase the number of women in the House of Commons from 26 per cent to 50 per cent, reflecting the gender breakdown in Canada? We start with respect.

We stop describing women as assertive bitches when their style and approach are confident. We stop describing what they wore – whether pearls or a pantsuit. We speak out against online threats about raping female politicians.

We stop blaming women for the sexism they experience every day and focus instead on people who are sexist. We denounce chants such as “lock her up.” We focus on ideas and policies and direct our criticism there – above the personal fray.

We need to show compassion in how we treat each other online and refuse to be a bystander when we read or hear someone being attacked. Regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or religion, we all deserve to feel safe and be safe in any career we choose.

The next generation of leaders are watching and forming ideas about how they want to contribute; we cannot let girls be scared silent.

Sue Tomney is chief executive of YW Calgary, a charity committed to seeing women thrive in a safe and equitable community.