Even if every female candidate running for office this month is elected in the upcoming October 22 municipal elections, women will remain a tiny minority of the leadership in local governments across Manitoba.
About 17 per cent, or 267 of the 1,507 candidates hoping for a seat around town, village and RM council tables this year are women. In the 2010 elections just 13 per cent of all elected officials were female.
Shirley Kalyniuk, town of Rossburn mayor, says it’s disheartening to again see so few women wanting to participate in local government. “I’m really disappointed,” she said. “I think we need that mix of male and female on council,” she said.
But she’s also not surprised. Kalyniuk, who is also a midwestern director on the Association of Manitoba Municipalities board, chaired a task force in 2009 that led to the AMM’s report Ballot Box Barriers that looked into why so few women want the job of councillor, mayor or reeve.
The report noted that while female representation at provincial and national levels is also lower than male, “the problem seems to be more profound at the municipal level.”
At the time only 15 per cent of elected officials were women, and just seven per cent were heads of council in Manitoba.
As part of the task force’s research, serving municipal leaders were asked to fill out questionnaires about what they felt the problem might be, and there appeared to be none, according to the small number (13 per cent) who responded. The vast majority (91 per cent) said there were no barriers facing women, and women “were free to run for office just like men.”
But those who did respond said the problem stemmed from perception of municipal councils as “old boys’ clubs,” plus lack of time for the job was also a significant barrier, the report said.
Kalyniuk said time to devote to the role really does seem to be the clincher. She approached various women over the past four years urging them to consider municipal service and lack of it was their most oft-cited reason for declining.
She understands that, although she’s held her own role in office since 1983.
“If I had a full-time job and small kids, I probably would say I can’t give more of myself to my community too,” she said. The demands on municipal officials’ time is an issue for both genders and needs addressing as municipal officials’ duties expand, she added.
But the matter of who gets elected goes beyond perceptions, or individual’s personal challenges too.
Ballot Box Barriers also looked at how municipalities hold elections, comparing places with proportional representation systems (where the total number of seats are assigned to top candidates from the list of those seeking office), versus those with wards, or single races. It found that 69 municipalities electing officials “at large,” had at least one woman in office. By contrast, just 35 of the 97 municipalities electing officials by ward had a female representative. Most Manitoba towns and villages elect officials using at-large systems. Wards are more common in rural municipalities.
Kalyniuk said the whole matter of how to get more women interested in municipal politics is extremely challenging. It needs champions. But it goes back to that matter of time.
Elected officials who might care about this enough to take it on are already busy enough with their own councils.
“I really don’t know how we address it,” she said “And it’s a very sensitive issue.”
Ballot Box Barriers recommended the AMM tackle the matter directly, with an eye to the 2014 elections, and host workshops and learning sessions “to promote municipal government and provide information about its role in people’s lives.” But after hosting a couple of workshops and networking sessions at AMM conventions, the whole thing was shelved.
“We started, then it just kind of petered right out,” said Kalyniuk.