While they may disagree on economic, social, and environmental policy, candidates across party lines bonded last week over a shared experience: entering politics as a woman. 

Conversations were sparked on Twitter when Karla Hayward, who is running for the Liberals in Mount Pearl-Southlands, stated that she had already experienced abuse on social media.

Liberal, PC, NDP, and NL Alliance candidates shared their experiences with one another and, as Kristina Ennis, PC candidate for St. John’s West, describes it, “formed a bit of a support network among ourselves regardless of political stripe.”

While the participation of women as candidates is up in the 2021 election compared to 2019, women still face a number of challenges.

Women in Politics

While women make up 50 percent of the population, generally in Canada they make up around 25 percent of provincial and federal legislatures.

Prior to the election call in Newfoundland and Labrador, 9 out of 40—or 22.5 percent—members of the House of Assembly were women. That figure had previously stood at 25 percent (10 out of 40) after the 2015 election.

The Liberals are running 14 women candidates and one non-binary candidate out of 40 candidates (37.5 percent) in the 2021 election. The PCs are running 9 women out of 40 (22.5 percent) while the NL Alliance is running 1 woman out of 6 candidates (17 percent). 17 out of 33 NDP candidates (51.5 percent) identify as women, transgender, or non-binary.

Gillian Pearson is the co-chair of the Newfoundland and Labrador chapter of Equal Voice, a national organisation with a mandate to support and elect more women across all levels of public office. She stresses the importance of having an elected body that represents our population.

All the research shows that if you have more women involved in policy then there are quite different outcomes in terms of a lot of different policy areas like social and educational policy,” Pearson told the Independent.

On the Campaign Trail

Pearson says that criticisms that women face online are much different than the ones they face going door to door. 

“At the door they’re often very veiled, or well-intentioned. But they’re no less harmful or annoying. So sometimes at the door things you’ll get are ‘gosh, you look too young to be running for politics’ or ‘what’s a smart girl like you running for politics for’ or, you know, ‘you’re too pretty to be doing things like this’, right? And, I mean, a man is not going to get at the door ‘you look too middle-aged to be doing this’, ‘you look way too experienced to be doing this’, right? They just don’t receive that same type of commentary, and we often don’t think of that as negative.”

While Kristina Ennis stresses she has had a positive experience on the campaign trail, she can attest to receiving this type of commentary.

“So the question I’ve been asked a couple of times now—and I think it’s usually in jest, but I don’t think it’s an appropriate question to ask—is if I’m even old enough to be running in an election. Which I don’t really appreciate, I think it kind of implies some hesitance around my credibility just as a young person,” said Ennis. 

Pearson says that criticism online can be more extreme, with women getting disproportionately more personal negative criticisms. “So about their appearance, or you know, digging into their qualifications or their intentions more so than men,” said Pearson.

That possibility can be a major deterrent for talented potential female candidates according to Alison Coffin, leader of the NDP who is running in St. John’s East-Quidi Vidi.

It particularly came up as I was recruiting candidates. I had lots of women saying ‘I’m not sure if I’m ready to put myself out there’ or ‘I’m not ready to take all of the flack on Facebook and Twitter’ and things like that,” Coffin told the Independent. 

“It is a huge barrier for women just knowing that that exists. It makes them feel vulnerable and it makes them reconsider their decisions to run. So it’s a huge deterrent. The fact that this actually exists is an enormous deterrent for women candidates.”

Barriers to Entry

Andrea Newbury is running for the NL Alliance in Mount Scio. For her, it was the roadblocks that women come up against when running rather than the possibility of harassment that made her question running. 

“I have pretty thick skin… and I will never accept it and I will always stand up for myself and for others. But I think the roadblocks when it comes to entering politics for females, and especially mothers, I had to run to bring these issues to light and to make sure that they have equal opportunity to enter politics if they want to,” said Newbury. 

Pearson states that there are many barriers that are universal to any potential candidate in terms of resources, timing and family commitments, but that women tend to disproportionately face those challenges more often.

“So they don’t necessarily have access to resources, they might not have the support they need in terms of having someone to take over childcare or elder care duties, or they just tend to suffer from things like imposter syndromes at higher rates. So they don’t think that they’re qualified enough to take something like this on,” said Pearson. 

Sarah Stoodley, the incumbent candidate for Mount Scio who is running for the Liberals, echoes the importance of addressing systemic barriers. 

She says that in order to run a successful political campaign it is generally not possible to maintain full-time employment during the campaign.

“I had to take a leave of absence from my former job when I ran. And so not everyone can afford to do that. So that’s kind of a level of privilege built into the system that I think impacts women more than it impacts men,” said Stoodley.

“Before you even get your papers done that is just a block that stops you. So I think there’s significant room for the system to change to help enable more women to run.”

Seats and Outcomes 

Pearson stresses that while it’s important to see the number of women running for election is rising, it’s also important to understand the outcomes of races.

“Are we going to make any gains in terms of seat count? And that means looking at whether our parties are running women in [districts] where they realistically might have a chance at securing that seat,” said Pearson.

“So if we see the numbers of women rising each election, that’s great. But in the long term it’s not great if we’re not seeing more seats in the House. So that’s essentially the goal that we have,” she explained. 

Stoodley points to the role of parties: “Parties need to be more aggressive in recruiting women and to run them in winnable seats.”

Pearson also highlights the need for increased focus on diversity among women. 

“Are we seeing more Indigenous women running, women with disabilities, young women, women with kids, older women? It’s important to bring that into the discussion too,” said Pearson.

According to Pearson, diversity in views is also key. Both she and Newbury point to recent discussions on social media where the presence of three female candidates in the same district (Mount Scio) was called into question. 

“[They] were discussing ‘well, you know, there’s already a young woman in that seat. Why would more women run there and potentially want to take that away from her?’ And that’s just a really harmful position that persists, that because there’s already a woman there then all of a sudden other women shouldn’t try to take it on,” Pearson explained. 

Newbury, who is one of those candidates, said “I want people to understand that it’s not a bad thing for a female to run against another female. They offer different things, they bring different things to the table. And even though we can still support each other as females running in an election, we can still challenge each other and I think that’s important for people to know.”

Retention in Politics and Path Forward

While the experience of female candidates in the 2021 election may not be unexpected, Pearson says that continued public discussion is important. 

“It allows organizations to learn more about [the issue] and women candidates, and potentially bring them into the fold in speaking about their experience,” Pearson said. 

Candidates point to a number of concrete steps to enable women to enter politics.

“In democratic reform conversations with my colleagues, that’s one of the things that I’ve been pushing for: how do we, for example, use election finance rules to enable more women to run? Maybe we need to have childcare provided or childcare as an expense where you can get the money back if you pay for childcare while you’re running, things like that,” said Stoodley.

Coffin says that the NDP have a fund for women candidates, with all unelected candidates sharing that fund in order to help them prepare for an election. 

“Because oftentimes you tend to go from not necessarily a public life into public life. And you need extra things to do that. So we support our candidates that way,” Coffin explained. 

On a general level, Ennis encourages people to be aware of unconscious biases. “One thing that I’ve learned is that awareness of your biases and checking those biases every now and then when you’re making decisions can make a huge difference in how something you say or do comes across to another person,” said Ennis.

“Other people need to support women, other men especially need to call this out,” Newbury told the Independent. “We just need to be kind to each other. So much hate and so much anger is in the world today, and no matter how cliche it is we just need to be kind to each other and things will definitely improve in provincial politics as well.”

Despite challenges, Ennis says she has had a positive campaign experience. 

“This network of strong, confident women is something that has been a great positive that’s come out of this election for me,” said Ennis. 

“And I love to see it, it’s a sense of community. We’re all here for each even though we might not be on the same page politically: we all understand what each of us is going through.”

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