Time to discuss ideas, not barriers: Women in St. John’s election

Candidates say while they face gender-based barriers to running for public office, during election campaigns isn’t the time to focus on that. They want to talk ideas.

Ten women are vying for seats on St. John’s City Council this fall, marking a sign of progress for a provincial capital that has seen seven women elected to its municipal government since the late 19th century.

Tuesday’s nomination deadline closed with seven women running for councillor seats, two for deputy mayor, and one for mayor.

The City of St. John’s has had two women mayors in its council’s 129-year history, and though more women are running for public office in 2017 than in recent years, they still face barriers.

Lori Lee Oates, Chair of Equal Voice NL, an advocacy group that supports the advancement of women in politics, recently told The Independent that “study after study indicates that women make effective politicians,” that they “pass more legislation, they work on issues that are more likely to be deemed important and overwhelmingly bring more money into their districts.”

Oates says the United Nations estimates that governing bodies require “at least 30 percent women…to have effective policy making [to meet the needs of] women and children and families,” and that women’s “different lived experiences than men” shape their outlooks and beliefs, and therefore the way they make decisions in public roles.

Representation in the media

But before women are elected to public office, they first must overcome some challenges that men typically do not face.

Oates noted that women are often marginalized in the way they’re represented by media, and that questions posed to them often revolve around their sex or gender rather their ideas, policies and platforms.

“I think the media can stop and ask, ‘Would we be saying this if this was a male candidate?’ and really consider the narrative being put out there,” she explained. “I think the important thing is to focus on the policy issues and put the personal character aside.”

Some of the women running in the St. John’s election have expressed similar concerns in the early stages of the current campaign.

Sheilagh O’Leary is a current city councillor who in February announced her plans to run for deputy mayor. A few campaigns already under her belt, she says she hoped media would be eager to know about her plans and her reasons for wanting to run for deputy mayor, but that as of late August most of the coverage she received concerned her gender.

“The reality is there has been next to no coverage on policy issues,” explained O’Leary, a former chapter chair for Equal Voice. “Right now it seems to be very topical about women candidates, which is obviously something I personally have been working towards for many, many years.

“It’s challenging because no one wants to talk about what you have to bring forward.”

O’Leary said she wants to talk about reviewing municipal planning, vacant buildings, the environment and other issues that affect the people of St. John’s directly.

“Affordability is the number one thing for how we juggle that tax base that we get from the public and turn it into services that we need,” she said.

O’Leary has co-lead the effort to ban plastic bags province-wide, and recently announced she will fight to make the City of St. John’s conference hall, a publicly-funded space, free to groups who cannot afford to pay the fee.

Hope Jamieson, a first time candidate running for ward 2, says though she’s had a positive response to her announcement she would like to be asked different questions by the media.

“In terms of kinds of questions [media ask], I think there are things that women candidates get asked that men don’t,” she explained.

“For example: What are you going to do against those strong voices on council? And I think the implication there is that somehow a woman’s voice is less strong,” said explained. 

“It’s just a micro-aggression as opposed to something overt. There is a subtle but clear difference of how people get covered. I feel like all of the conversations I’m having are about the fact that I’m a woman and not about policy or experience or anything that qualifies me to be on council.”

Jamieson, who has been canvassing in her ward, has plans for a sustainable, holistic community that includes transparent engagement with city residents.

“Where I live accessibility, walkability is extremely important,” she said, explaining many of her neighbours don’t have vehicles and are impacted by poor snow clearing in the winter months, and a lack of adequately networked sidewalks year round.

Jamieson also said that developing tax policies that would better support small businesses would contribute to a “vibrant and resilient economy.”

To achieve this she is proposing a “grants or low-interest loan program for small businesses to go into the vacant store fronts on Water Street.”

Jamieson supports culture and the arts and wants to give artists a chance to thrive in those industries. Responding to a 2013 study conducted by the City of St. John’s, she is proposing production arts space in the west end of Water Street to help grow the industry and to revitalize what she calls an underutilized part of the downtown core.

The incumbent advantage

Oates said it’s difficult for the voting public to familiarize themselves with the women candidates’ policies if media are focused exclusively, or significantly more, on the barriers they face because of their sex or gender relative to those candidates’ ideas.

She also said a relatively short municipal election campaign timeframe favours the incumbents, most of whom are men. While it’s up to each media outlet to decide what they would like to ask candidates and when to begin election coverage, Oates said that many outlets wait until after the last day for candidate nominations before reporting on candidates’ policy ideas.

“The argument is that if I have one candidate on my show then I have to have all candidates on my show,” she said, explaining the logic some media outlets use in their decisions to wait until after nomination deadlines to begin election coverage.

“Basically candidates are being told that they can’t talk about policy issues until the election officially starts,” Oates continued. “It creates an unfair advantage for incumbents who have already gotten name recognition and theoretically have gotten media coverage as someone who is currently sitting on council. It makes it extremely difficult for someone new to enter the race.”

Mail-in ballots are sent out on Sept. 8, giving residents the opportunity to vote barely more than a week after media’s election coverage picks up.

Councillor at large candidate Maggie Burton said while she’s had “positive interactions” with local newsmedia, “it’s really hard to get on the air in the first place because the rules that some of the call in shows have are not clear.

“How many times a week can you be on? What happens if another candidate calls before you do? Being asked not to talk about policy and only asked to talk about your experience as a woman in the election. These are all things that I have struggled with,” she said.

Burton said she has also noticed a difference between candidate and incumbent coverage.

“The [radio] shows call current councillors to talk about municipal affairs a lot and we wish that they would call candidates as well. Anyone who is running has spent a lot of time researching local issues,” she explained. “The way incumbents are portrayed in the media versus candidates — you are seen as an expert when you’re an incumbent but a candidate is seen as an inexperienced person without a legitimate perspective to be used in a story about municipal politics.”

Burton would like a clearer understanding of media’s policy during the election. She has reached out to media outlets about her concerns, but says she’s been met with silence on the matter.

Burton is also making government transparency a priority in her platform.

“Problems run from private council meetings, to poorly advertised committee meetings, to opaque organizations like Mile One and Metrobus,” she stated in her platform.

O’Leary says while it’s important to talk about how women face barriers in entering politics, an election campaign isn’t the time for media to make that a focal point.

“It should be in the background but it’s election time now,” she said. “Let’s see what people have to offer.”

Burton said in some cases she has been asked by media to not discuss policy issues and only talk about being a female candidate.

“I don’t think it’s fair to be asked not talk about policy and not to talk about the election when ballots go out two weeks from now and no one has contacted me at all to talk about my platform or to have me on a show,” she said. “Anytime I have been contacted directly it’s been to talk about my experience as a female candidate.

“It limits the amount of exposure that people get to your ideas. How are you supposed to know as a voter what people’s policies are if they aren’t being covered equally by the media?”

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