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Women being shut out of provincial election?

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Earlier this year, Newfoundland and Labrador made Canadian history when it became the first province to have all three major parties headed by women. Premier Kathy Dunderdale became only the third woman in Canadian history to become premier of a province.

But it looks like the October 11 election could result in a radical swing backward, as women candidates are currently set to hit a low not seen in years.

All three parties are dramatically down in their nomination of female candidates. Although nominations aren’t over yet – so it’s too early to tell final outcomes – unless parties dramatically improve their nomination of women they’re set to deliver fewer female candidates than they have in over a decade.

The most dramatic drop is with the Liberals. At present, 14% of their 14 candidates are women. Last election, they ran 29% female candidates; the election before that, it was 23%. In 1999 they ran 21%.

Even the NDP, a party that’s long prided itself on recruiting female candidates, is well below their previous numbers. With 20 candidates in place, only 25% of them are women: last election they ran 38% women.

The PC’s are also running lower than any point in the past decade. With 40 candidates already in place, only 15% of them are women, a low they haven’t seen since the 1999 election (in 2007, nearly a quarter of their candidates were women).

Linda Ross, President of the Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women, is concerned about the trend.

“It’s a big concern….it’s quite disappointing that we don’t have nearly the number of female candidates running in this election. And I guess for me it speaks to the fact that we have to do more to encourage women to run in provincial and federal elections.”

“Old male style politics is not necessarily something women want to engage with…Let’s focus on the issues, and now to improve the state of the people of the province. That’s what we want to focus on, not the personal attacks.” – Linda Ross, Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women

She notes that there have been increases in women running in municipal elections, but elections at the federal and provincial level remain a challenge. She says some of it might have to do with reforming the way politics is practiced, and the image politicians have in the public eye.

“Politics has to become a bit different. It has to be based more on the issues. Old male style politics is not necessarily something women want to engage with. Let’s debate the issues. Let’s focus on the issues, and how to improve the state of the people of the province. That’s what we want to focus on, not the personal attacks. The style of it has to change, but there also has to be a lot more effort to consciously think about the fact that we want women in our parties, we want women elected, and figure out what we have to do to make that happen.”

“I think it’d be interesting if it was the reverse, if what you had was the majority was female, instead of men. Would people be concerned about it? My bet would be yes. What we want to see is our governing structure reflective of our population as a whole. Women do see things from a different perspective, they see things differently from men. That’s what democracy is, it’s representing the population. And who better to represent women, than women?”

Policies can make the difference

Amanda Bittner is a professor of political science at Memorial University who studies women in politics. She says that while all parties have become more conscious of the need to address low numbers of women, one of the reasons the NDP has been more successful is that it actively provides financial support through a special fund for women who decide to run as candidates. She says that sort of practical policy is what’s needed to break through existing barriers.

“While it’s the case that we have formal equality, it’s also the case that there’s a lot of other barriers that prevent women from deciding to run ahead and campaign. Caregiving responsibilities still tend to fall to women. There are some men who look after children, but by and large for the most part it’s still a female-dominated area…husbands don’t have the same issue, their wives look after the children, so there’s that kind of lifestyle barrier. A lot of it has to do with money and finance. It costs a lot of money to run a campaign and women have less access to the networks of big money than men do. That’s a barrier. And another big barrier is role models.”

She says for parties seeking to increase the numbers of women running, there are clear policy choices which research shows can work.

“The big thing is encouraging them. Studies have shown that when women are approached and convinced by parties, they tend to run. And when they run, they win. Besides these socio-economic barriers, women tend to require more convincing than men do. When you have riding associations and party leadership that’s actively encouraging specific women – not just women generally, but specific women, who have a good shot at it – that tends to be the biggest indicator and encouragement to have them run and win…it’s important to not just have policies but to actively follow up on them.”

What do the parties say?

Lorraine Michael, leader of the NDP, doesn’t mince words.

“The numbers of women being nominated is extremely important to us. We have been very aggressive in recruiting women candidates. We are being fairly aggressive and have no doubt we are going to have as many women nominated when we get to the end of this process. It’s a top priority for us…it’s part and parcel of who we are as a party.”

She points out the NDP has an affirmative action program which requires the leadership to report back regularly to the party on its active efforts to recruit women and get women involved. In 2006 it also established a specific fund – the Helen Fogwill Porter fund, named in honour of the local author – to assist women in financing their candidacies, in view of the economic barriers which deter many of them from running. She says practical measures like this are important in surmounting barriers women face.

“Politics has been male-dominated. Women had to fight to even have a vote. There are many barriers. Some of them are financial – women don’t have the same access to the network of money that men have access to. Women still unfortunately have the brunt of the childcare that goes on in our society. Women are also the ones who most often take care of senior parents…whenever I have women who want to run but can’t, it’s for these reasons that they say no.”

“Why is it important? Women have a different experience of life than men do. Women have a heavier burden when it comes to childcare and care of senior parents. This gives them a different perspective. It’s very important to have a male and female experience in all aspects of our society, and especially in politics.”

But she says the key is not just soliciting women candidates, but ensuring women’s presence throughout the party structure.

“Our affirmative action program, in our party is reflected not just in getting women elected at election time, but also in getting women involved in the party. You will see a number of women in key positions in the party, in the election planning process, in acting as campaign managers, etc. It’s not only in the numbers of women going for elected positions, it’s also in regard to the women working behind the scenes.”

“It’s not just a before-the-election issue…It’s a longer term thing. You have to make an effort to get women, and to get younger people, involved.” – Ross Reid, Progressive Conservative party.

Rex Gibbons is co-chair of the election preparation committee for the provincial Liberals. While their party has had to put a hold on candidate nominations to deal with the leadership selection in the wake of Yvonne Jones’ decision to step down, he’s confident that by the end of the process more women will come forward.

“We are encouraging and talking to lots of women candidates. It’s still early days…there are women candidates going to run in some of the ridings. Our leader is a woman and she’s been talking to a lot of women throughout Newfoundland and Labrador and a lot of women have committed to run. There is no doubt that when the final count is in, we’ll have a respectable number of candidates.”

“We’re a democratic party open to all, and we’re not biasing our candidacies in any way. We say if you want to run, then run, and you have to win. We’re pleased to have women candidates as well as male candidates. By the end of the day we’ll have a respectable number.”

He says that while Jones has made it a point to talk to women throughout the province and recruit more women, the party doesn’t employ special measures to solicit candidates.

“We haven’t put any quotas on it. We think it’s important to actively solicit all people who are interested. We’ve talked to people both male and female…if we end up with 48 women, 48 women can have the spots. But they have to win them. We’ve been canvassing the province for potential candidates without regard to sex. We’re saying if you’re interested, we want your participation.”

Ross Reid is the campaign manager for the province’s Progressive Conservative (PC) party. He speaks honestly and openly about the challenge they’ve faced, saying he’s aware of the low numbers of women currently declared as candidates among all the parties, and that his party is working hard to try to fix it.

“It’s something we’ve been very conscious of…it’s not desirable. In my view there’s not enough women, and not enough young people. That’s straight across the board.”

He says Premier Dunderdale highlighted the issue from the start of campaign planning, and asked the campaign organizers to pay attention to the need to recruit and involve women. The party formed a candidate search committee, with specific instructions to encourage women to run.

“I’m not completely happy with the results, but it’s a problem you have to deal with over the longer term. It’s not just a before-the-election issue…It’s a longer term thing. You have to make an effort to get women, and to get younger people, involved.”

Reid acknowledged that women face a number of challenges when it comes to getting involved politically.

“It’s still hard. Spouses aren’t terribly supportive, it’s hard for women who are balancing family obligations, and who are dealing with the economic realities of it.”

But he says the presence of a female premier – who, if the PC’s win, will become the second elected female premier in Canadian history – is an important symbolic step.

“I can’t think of a better example, or source of encouragement, than an elected woman premier. It’s proof that women can do it, no matter where you’re from.”

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