Where are the women?

image80 years ago, in 1936, Barbara Hanley was elected by the citizens of Webbwood Ontario as the first female mayor in Canada. She received 82 votes, defeating her opponent by 13 (not a bad margin!).

Hanley was no stranger to politics. Trained as a teacher, she was first elected to the school board and then served one term on town council before running for mayor. Her uncle and brother were also mayors in other Northern Ontario communities. Hanley ended up serving 8 terms as mayor. In one of her re-election races, her main opponent was another woman.

15 years later, in 1951, Charlotte Whitton (pictured here) became the first female mayor in a large Canadian city. Whitton was a member of Ottawa City Council, and was selected by her colleagues to be acting mayor following the sudden death of the incumbent. She was later elected to the position. Whitton was a highly controversial figure, and sounds like she had quite a way with words. She’s credited with this doozy:

Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.

(I like to imagine an old school mic drop at the end of this quote).

In 2016, as we mark the 65 and 80 year anniversaries of these Canadian milestones, it’s cause to reflect on where we are at today with respect to gender equality in the leadership of Canada’s cities.

First, a bit of context.

There is a traditional view that local government is more amenable to the participation of women in politics. Some have called this the “municipal advantage”. The literature cites reasons including local politics being more relevant to women’s lives, the work being “closer to home”, the lack of political parties (in most cases) and biases in candidate selection processes, the significantly higher number of municipal political positions in the country compared to federal or provincial positions, and a perception that the workload of municipal politicians is “lighter” or less complex. The argument that municipal politics is a good “stepping stone” for women to “advance” to “higher level” office is also common.

If you’ve read anything else on this blog (or counted the number of quotation marks in the paragraph above), you can probably guess I’m not a big fan of this argument. I actually find it a tad offensive – and not so much as a person who believes in gender equality, but as a person who believes in local government. I don’t think of municipal government as being at the bottom of a constitutional ladder, or a “junior” level of government in Canada. I see federal, provincial and municipal governments as partners of equal importance, each dealing with complex policy issues within their respective spheres of jurisdiction. I also question whether the underlying assumptions about local government being smaller and simpler are still valid. Toronto City Council is responsible for a larger budget than several provinces. Mayors in 28 Canadian cities are directly elected by more people than any federal or provincial politician in the country. Local government isn’t the kid sister of governments in Canada anymore, particularly not in our cities.

The other big problem with the “municipal advantage” argument is that the data doesn’t support it. An excellent book, Electing a Diverse Canada: the representation of immigrants, minorities, and women, edited by Caroline Andrew in 2008, examines how well governments in Canada represent the communities they serve. It calculates a proportionality index showing how under and over represented various demographics are by their elected officials, including in 11 Canadian cities. One of the findings of this study is that the so-called “municipal advantage” in gender representation no longer exists. In other words, women are now more represented within other levels of government than they are in Canada’s cities.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) reports that 16% of mayors, and 24% of councillors, in Canada today are women. My guess is there is more of a story to be told within the 16% figure, with the odds of having a female mayor going down as city size goes up.

My research project is based on a sample of 10 Canadian cities, the largest in each province. The current mayor in all 10 cities is male (for the math challenged among us, that’s 0% women). Only 6 of the cities have ever had a female mayor. Vancouver, Calgary, Saskatoon and Montreal have never had a female mayor. The most female mayors in any of the cities is an underwhelming 2. The FCM Big City Mayors Caucus includes just 3 women (or, 14%).

Now, the broad goal here is about more than just the number of women who are elected; it includes shifting attitudes and ingraining the value of gender equality in policy making. It’s about removing conscious and unconscious bias from our governance and government structures. Men and women both play critical roles here, and there are many examples of male political leaders – including several in the cities in my sample – who are strong champions for equality and inclusion. Just because a mayor is a woman also doesn’t necessarily mean she represents the interests of all women (case in point: although I respect Charlotte Whitton for being the first female big city mayor in Canada, if you read a bit more about her politics it will make your skin crawl).

I doubt that Mayor Barbara Hanley would be impressed to hear that, 80 years after her election, we’re sitting around 16% of mayors in Canada being women. We can, and should, do better. If there’s a silver lining though, it’s that a number this low provides needed ammunition to keep the discussion about equality and inclusion on the front burner. We’re fortunate to have many political leaders – women and men – who continue to champion this cause.

Cities are Canada’s engine, and play an important role in our lives. The leadership of cities matters. We are wise to select leaders who reflect, and believe in, equality because they are essential ingredients towards more inclusive, prosperous and livable Canadian cities.