When municipal leaders were surveyed last winter and asked, “What’s keeping women from running for office?” relatively few filled out the questionnaire – just 160 out of nearly 1,000 responded.
Ninety-one replied saying they saw no barriers for women to serve on local councils and that they were “free to run just like men.”
It was as if the province’s poor track record on women’s participation in local government did not exist.
The numbers are abysmal. Just a scant 15 per cent of all councillors across this province’s 198 local governments are female; just seven per cent sit in the mayor’s or reeve’s chair.
Manitoba’s female participation in local government is far lower than the national average of 22.9 per cent.
That was plainly evident to Baldur resident Kristine Janz even before she made a successful bid for office in 2006 and was elected to a councillor’s position with the R. M. of Argyle.
Why were so few women seeking office? she wondered. She took that question to the Association of Manitoba Municipalities’ annual convention in 2009, successfully pitching a proposal that AMM take a closer look at the problem.
AMM struck a task force committee and this June released a report titledBallot Box Barriers: Engaging more women in the municipal democratic process.
The report identifies a number of barriers – lack of time among women due to dual obligations of work and family, and the perception of municipal councils as an “old boys’ club,” were the foremost. Lack of financial independence and feeling less qualified for the job, having less profile in their communities and a negative public perception of women in leadership positions were others.
The report also tabled a number of solutions, including actively promoting why women should become involved in municipal politics, running campaign schools to provide more information for those interested, and highlighting role models and success stories.
They can’t do much leading into this year’s elections Oct. 27, but the AMM does plan to use the report to encourage more women to change their minds about local politics for 2014.
Janz was pleased with the results ofBallot Box Barriersand optimistic that it will reap results.
“I believe we will see change over time,” she said.
Wanting positive change for their communities is the most oft-cited reason the relatively few, but exceedingly passionate and conscientious female leaders currently serving cite as why they wanted a councillor’s, mayor’s or reeve’s job.
“I’d been on volunteer boards but I’d never tried politics,” says R. M. of Rossburn Councillor Ilse Ketelsen. But the state of rural health care worried her and she wanted to see her region doing more to retain population and grow. She sought office believing that as an elected official she could make a difference.
Just one year getting on council in 2006 she successfully lobbied the AMM to put rural child care on its agenda. What struck her was how readily the municipal lobby group agreed on the need for more child-care services. In retrospect, she wonders if it was simply a matter of something raising the issue.
“It passed so easily, I had to think that this had already been on a lot of minds,” she said. “It just seemed as though it had never occurred to anyone to put it forward to the AMM.”
Eileen Clarke, now serving her first term as mayor in Gladstone, likewise saw local politics as a way to focus her considerable concerns for her town’s declining population. She says she’s quite astonished at how much progress has already been made here, thanks to the town’s embrace of an Age-Friendly Initiative.
To those thinking about taking on a role in municipal leadership, “if you want to make a difference, you can,” says Clarke. “I’ve now done speaking engagements in many places, outlining the success Gladstone has had.”
Gimli Mayor Tammy Axelsson was involved on many volunteer boards when she sought office four years ago. She felt she had the knowledge and the skills to seek the mayor’s job in 2006 and she got it, ousting a long-serving rival for the job. She has since presided over the amalgamation of the R. M. and town.
VISION, LONG-TERM PLANNING
“I wanted to see our community have an overall vision,” she said. “I had concerns about our long-term plan.”
Alice Bourgouin, reeve of the R. M. of Rosser, believes a longer-term view and plan are missing within many councils because they’re too heavily weighted by male perspectives that tend to try to fix immediate things and seek short-term solutions.
Women tend to bring more social issues to the table, and want to plan for community growth and development with the needs of families in mind, she said. She believes economic development initiatives would probably be going in different directions if more female municipal leadership had more say about it.
“Men are very good at solving problems that are right now, but they don’t always have a vision of where they want to go in the future,” Bourgouin said.
Yet many women who might eye the job, think having ideas and vision isn’t enough. Feeling less qualified for a job seen as primarily making decisions about grading roads and locating culverts was one of the key barriers cited inBallot Box.
Axelsson says that’s needlessly holding women back. “Without question there’s hesitancy of a woman entering the municipal world,” says Axelsson, but she believes that’s because they don’t understand the role of the municipal leader, nor realize CAOs and public works staff are in place to advise on many technical matters. “A council isn’t there to run the municipality,” she said. “It’s there to set vision and strategize and communicate with the public.”
Bourgouin says what keeps rural women out of local office is also the traditional view, still predominant in many rural areas where older citizens live, about the role of women; they should not be leaders if there’s a man around for the job.
“A younger generation is more open to this,” she said. “But for an older generation, it’s still ‘A man should be the head of everything.’”
Most say that younger generation will usher in the changeBallot Boxis advocating.
A younger generation is far more adept using communications technology, which may facilitate new processes for doing municipal work, Janz says.
“If you want to talk barriers, just look at the barriers across generations with the way we communicate,” she said. “Lots of councillors in their 60s don’t even have email access yet.”
Changes in demographics will, out of necessity, spur a new cohort of people into municipal leadership too, she says.
“Most rural municipalities used to be a farming community, but there’s fewer and fewer farmers that can come in and sit on these boards anymore. I do think that we will start to see more and more people, men and women, who work 9 to 5 coming in because there just isn’t anybody else.”
The jobs of municipal leaders will adapt to the needs of those in them, she adds.
– KRISTINE JANZ, R. M. OF ARGYLE COUNCILLOR, ON THE ADVANCEMENT OF MORE RURAL WOMEN INTO MUNICIPAL POLITICS
“Men are very good at solving problems that are right now, but they don’t always have a vision of where they want to go in the future.”