A new report blames under-representation of women and gender minorities in municipal politics on institutions that favour “affluent, older retirees” and a culture of harassment and abuse.
The Feminist Campaign School, which helps train and promote “values-driven leadership with representation for municipal elections,” published the report in partnership with the Climate Caucus, a self-described non-partisan network of current and former local elected leaders on Sept. 12.
Drawing on existing studies, surveys, focus groups and interviews with more than 100 women and gender minorities from B.C. and Alberta, the report explores the reasons behind the under-representation of women in municipal politics in offering recommendations.
While women make up more than 50 per cent percent of Canada’s population, they account for 18 per cent of mayoral offices and 28 per cent of councillors seats, according to the report, citing 2015 statistics collected through the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.
The report also finds that women and people of gender minorities often serve no more than one or two terms in municipal politics before leaving their roles.
Coun. Nadine Nakagawa of New Westminster, who served as lead researcher along with Trudi Goels, Karen-Marie Elah Perry and Manjot Bains, said the under-representation undermines the quality of democratic decision-making.
“City council tables need to reflect the diversity of the communities they represent, but right now people are being excluded and pushed out,” Nakagawa said. “This research has concrete steps we can immediately take to address these issues.”
Reasons cited for the imbalance include the absence of childcare, pensions, benefits and full-time pay structures to support the needs of younger councillors.
Notwithstanding top mayoral jobs in bigger cities, most municipal representatives receive part-time pay for what is essentially a full-time job on top of any existing professional and personal responsibilities. These realities tend to favour older retirees, the report concludes, many of them white men.
Accordingly, the report recommends several remedies to remove these institutional barriers. They include better access to childcare, pensions and benefits, as well as better pay.
The report also finds that voters themselves treat women with children with suspicion.
“Several elected officials in BC and Alberta in their thirties and forties who had children reported they were told by residents during campaigning that they shouldn’t be running for council,” it reads.
When elected, women and people of gender minorities also experience various abuse and harassment even to the point of the sexual assault.
“Women and gender minorities participating in this study reported violent physical threats, the destruction of private property, and constituents waiting outside their offices at night or following them in vehicles,” it reads. “Others endured racist slurs from both the public and their own council members.”
Pointing to a number of case studies, the report recommends the establishment of a provincial integrity commissioner for local government to enforce legally mandated codes of conduct, clearer accountability and legal sanctions for cases of misconduct and abuse, including the removal of councillors or mayors coupled with financial penalties.
The report also makes two other central recommendations. The first calls for broader protections of whistleblowers, and formal support options for systemically oppressed groups occupying public office. The second calls for better data, especially when it comes to recognizing Indigenous, Black and People of Colour as well as SLGBTQIA+ and a change in culture through better training of municipal officials, chief administrative officers and other senior staff.