Getting women into the game
The United Nations has suggested local governments reach a 30 percent threshold when it comes to adequate gender representation, yet recent Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) data shows women currently represent 18 percent of mayors and 28 percent of councillors.
With these targets in mind, the 2019 Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association convention in Saskatoon recently presented an education session titled, “Getting Women in the Game,” which was focused on tapping the experience and wisdom women in local government offer.
Moderated by FCM’s Stephanie Hoey, the panel featured five women with experience in local government across Saskatchewan: Town of Kipling Councillor Pat Jackson, City of Warman Mayor Sheryl Spence, City of Moose Jaw Councillor Dawn Luhning, City of Yorkton Councillor Randy Goulden, and Rural Municipality of Weyburn Reeve Carmen Sterling. Together, they shared insights about women in local government, as well as some other key takeaways of value for local government leaders.
The panel began with personal reflections from several of members of the panel. Councillor Jackson and Reeve Sterling touched on a similar point regarding the question, “If you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?” Women, they agreed, tend to look for reasons not to be involved. Their advice was once a decision has been made, stick with it, focus on what can be realistically accomplished, and go out and make a difference. Councillor Jackson added, “Any time you choose to get more involved with our community is the right time.”
Councillors Goulden and Luhning, as well as Mayor Spence, touched on the fact that being on council requires a lot of work. While not a particularly easy thing to do, both touched on the face preparing, putting in the work, and consulting with people who are experts on a topic is essential. They also agreed that what comes out can be incredibly rewarding despite the challenges.
An important part of the presentation was the value of diversity. The panel spoke about the value female leadership brings – the consistent belief women think differently, that sometimes there are different processes, and while everyone has the same goals they get to the end in different ways. Mayor Spence made the point diversity means councilors can complement one another because of their different styles, which she added is played out in communities across the country.
Councillor Jackson, however, raised the point diversity is about more than gender. Citing her own community’s growing Filipino population, and the challenges that representation bring in that case, the point of inclusion is well served. Ultimately, she said, representing the entire community is a key part of the mandate as an elected official, including working with members who might be marginalized, listening to them, taking their concerns back to council. The result, she concluded, will be a stronger community.
Social media is an issue impacting everyone in local government: male or female, veteran or neophyte, large community or small. There seemed to be consensus about the fact it’s not only important to monitor issues related to public social media accounts, but also to personal ones. Councillor Luhning made the point people should be the same across all their pages – personal or professional, public or private. The community being represented, she said, won’t draw a distinction so politicians must be vigilant.
The issue of negative online attention is one that affects many communities across the country. On the issue of how to deal with the negativity, there again was consensus – don’t feed the trolls. The panelists focused on taking the high road, about putting out correct information online, about picking up the phone rather than engaging in back and forth discussion online. The bottom line, they all agreed, was it’s important to be honest and authentic.
The panel touched on several elements related to civic engagement – not just about engaging women to get involved in local government, but also getting in touch with youth and the next generation of civic leaders. The comments were focused on insights from communities both large and small. Smaller communities face challenges related to getting individuals – particularly youth – engaged and volunteering in the community. This isn’t a problem, the panelists agreed, exclusive to small communities. Some of the key suggestions from the panel included the fact community leaders may simply need to ask – and that’s true no matter which underserviced community the politician is trying to tap into. More than that, the panel added, it’s about asking – rather than dictating – how things should run.
Everyone on the panel agreed it might mean different forms of community engagement to attract various groups, but the key is to make the effort. MW
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