Old boys’ club

Lack of women on Winnipeg city council

If you take a look at the current gender makeup of Manitoba’s municipal councils, you might think we were still in the 1950s. Nationally, our province is tied with Saskatchewan for having the lowest level of female representation at just 17 per cent.

The national average is 26 per cent.

In Manitoba’s largest city, the numbers are no better. Winnipeg’s 2010 - 2014 council boasted a measly three of 15 seats, or 20 per cent, held by women. This could drop further on Oct. 22 as Paula Havixbeck is not seeking re-election to council, and of the 59 names appearing on council ballots, just nine - or 15 per cent - are women.

In 1990 the United Nations Economic and Social Council set a target of 30 per cent female representation for elected bodies worldwide, a figure repeated in the UN’s Millennium Development Goals in 2000. It feels this is the minimum level required to ensure that these bodies are “…redefining political priorities, placing new items on the political agenda that reflect and address women's gender-specific concerns, values and experiences, and providing new perspectives on mainstream political issues.”

So, why are Winnipeg’s women steering clear of municipal politics?

Many point to the same reasons why citizens, regardless of gender, are reluctant to put their names forward. The hours are bad, the media is intrusive and then there’s the style of politics that municipal councils are often known for: a style one 2010 candidate called “boorish.”

Jenny Gerbasi, a veteran city councilor first elected in 1998, said when she arrived on council, it was an “old boys culture” and it hasn’t changed all that much. In fact, she noted that “…the environment here has been very hostile and confrontational in the last 10 years in particular,” adding that it’s a place most men wouldn’t want to be part of, either.

Another factor frequently mentioned is that there are no parties in municipal politics. At other political levels, party leaderships can instruct their candidate search teams to seek out certain types of candidates and encourage them over time to run. Incentives they can offer include additional financial resources to cover costs such as child care and the mentorship of sitting members who could one day be caucus colleagues.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) has been bringing attention to the issue and attempting to boost the number of women on municipal councils for the past decade. After a series of national workshops and events in 2004/05, it created a campaign called “30% by 2026”.  Nationally, the numbers are inching towards that UN target, from 21.4 per cent representation in 2006 to 26 per cent in 2013, though Winnipeg - and Manitoba - remain far behind the pack.

Gerbasi agrees it’s a combination of factors that keep women from seeking municipal office but without them, City Hall will remain an old boys club. She says, though, that she’s “…a hopelessly hopeful person and I hope that the culture will change.”

Christian Cassidy writes about local history and other fun stuff at his blog West End Dumplings.

Published in Volume 69, Number 7 of The Uniter (October 15, 2014)

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