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Why Few Women Serve Local Government

“With women representing 50 per cent of the population, many municipal councils simply do not reflect the whole of our communities.”

– SHIRLEY KALYNIUK, AMM VICE-PRESIDENT AND MAYOR OF ROSSBURN

Lack of time because of work and family responsibilities isn’t all that’s keeping rural women out of local politics, according to a new report.

Politics at the municipal level is seen as “an Old Boys club” where women aren’t welcome.

Those are some of the barriers keeping women from entering politics at the local level, cited in Ballot Box Barriers – An action plan for engaging more women in the municipal democratic process.

The 45-page report was released on the eve of this year’s round of June district meetings and prepared by the Association of Manitoba Municipalities Task Force on Women in Municipal Government.

Last year the AMM was asked at its annual convention to take a closer look at why rural women’s rates of participation in local politics is abysmally low.

Just 15 per cent of all councillors in this province’s 198 municipalities are women. Just seven per cent serve as mayors or reeves. That’s sharply below the national average of 22.9 per cent female participation and also lower than women’s rates of participation in both provincial and federal politics.

In Manitoba presently 18 of 57 MLAs or 32 per cent are female.

Mayor of Rossburn Shirley Kalyniuk chaired the three-member task force which also included R. M. of Rosser Reeve Alice Bourgouin, and City of Winnipeg Councillor Russ Wyatt.

The barriers their report identifies don’t surprise her much, including the “Old Boys club” perception, Kalyniuk said.

“I’m not hugely surprised by that reference,” she said. Kalyniuk has served on her local council since 1983, and is today the AMM’s urban vice-president.

“It’s still there, although it’s slowly fading because more younger people are getting involved and they’re more receptive to women coming in where women didn’t used to venture.”

The report boils down a myriad of responses to surveys and pf AMM membership to 12 major barriers impeding women’s participation in municipal government.

These also include less financial independence among women (thereby being unable to afford reduced work hours to serve in office), lack of time due to other responsibilities, and a “negative public perception of women in leadership positions.”

“Women in powerful positions are often more highly scrutinized than men, which creates a disincentive to run,” the report said.

The ward system of local government is also a tough nut to crack for newcomers. It is “a challenge to go up against an incumbent and getting elected for the first time requires beating an incumbent,” the report said, noting that women tend to be more successful in at-large elections than in wards or first-past-the-post systems.

Perceived lack of qualification for the job, and disinterest in perceived mundane matters of road and drainage ditches hold women back.

Kalyniuk said those kinds of perceptions boil down to municipal governments not engaging the public enough about the issues they’re really dealing with.

“I think we should be having a lot more public information meetings,” she said.

“People would become more

knowledgeable about what their council really does, and that we just don’t collect the taxes or sit around all year doing nothing.”

Issues municipalities now deal with go far beyond local maintenance matters like grass cutting and culverts, she said, adding that many women need to realize they’re highly knowledgeable about these issues and have unique perspectives and skills to address them.

Municipal politics has become “a totally different ball game,” she said. “It’s not just sidewalks and potholes and water anymore. It’s beautification of the community and health and education and day care and age friendliness.”

The report additionally lays out an action plan to attract more women to local government, including proposals that would see effort put into actively encouraging women to run for municipal office.

“Perhaps the best way to get women to run for municipal office is to ask them,” the report said.

“With women representing 50 per cent of the population, many municipal councils simply do not reflect the whole of our communities,” said Kalyniuk. “This report will help communities identify steps they can take to attract more women to the process and make their councils more inclusive.”

The entire Ballot Box Barriers report can be downloaded from AMM’s website at www.amm.mb.ca/.

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About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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