Chianello: Women's Day raises questions we can't afford to ignore

Coun. Catherine McKenney said she was 'disappointed that a woman wasn’t asked to speak' at a breakfast honouring International Women's Day. Julie Oliver / OTTAWA CITIZEN

There’s a certain damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t quality about marking International Women’s Day, especially for politicians. Hold an event and you want to make sure the agenda is appropriate, void of any perceived condescension. Yet ignore the event at your peril.

So let’s start with assuming only good intentions for the Mayor’s Breakfast Reception in Celebration of International Women’s Day, held last Friday.

With Mayor Jim Watson recuperating from his recent snowmobiling accident, the welcoming remarks were made by Coun. Mark Taylor. His brief comments were the only ones spoken at the event — a sole male voice at a breakfast honouring International Women’s Day.

There was nothing incorrect with Taylor’s remarks — indeed, his portrayal of his single-mother was touching and inspiring — but even the councillor acknowledged that it might seem “atypical” that he, a man, was the one speaking at the event.

Indeed.

Having a man (even though he is the deputy mayor, a purely ceremonial role) welcome the ladies to an event supposedly honouring them was a tone-deaf move by all involved. When our current city council includes just four women, it’s more important than ever to make sure that women are represented at the official events.

The gaffe did not go unnoticed.

“Absolutely no disrespect to Coun. Taylor, but I was disappointed that a woman wasn’t asked to speak,” says Catherine McKenney, the Somerset ward councillor first elected last October.

In the privileged halls of municipal power, it’s once in a while hard to know how to think about International Women’s Day. After all, we don’t have laws that officially discriminate against women. Our premier is a lesbian. In Ottawa, we’ve had plenty of female leaders, including three mayors.

But Jaquelin Holzman’s six-year mayoral run ended in 1997. Not only have we not had a female mayor in almost 20 years, we haven’t had a single serious female mayoral candidate in the past decade. At 17 per cent, the current council boasts the lowest female representation in more than 30 years.

And it’s not just on the political side that female leadership in the municipality seems to be regressing.

Both McKenney and Coun. Diane Deans point out that a number of female senior managers are retiring, with no women in sight to step into those roles.

“I worry that this city is sliding backward,” says Deans. “Our ranks have in reality thinned out here.”

The benchmark for female representation in government is regarded as to be 30 per cent. At that level, studies show, behaviour and policy considerations change. That much female representation does not correlate in a decrease in corruption, as some have suggested.

“Women don’t walk around with halos around their heads,” says Deans. But the increasingly male-dominated city hall “does not feel the same. It’s an intangible.”

The Gloucester-Southgate councillor insists that the “dialogue needs to continue.”

And she’s right.

If there are barriers in municipal government that hinder women from leadership roles, what are they? If women are deciding not to put themselves forward, why not?

Unravelling these issues is difficult. But just because we will be able to’t immediately see the answer doesn’t mean we should chuck the question.

Because the fact is, with women not continuing to consciously push forward, it is going to be easy for the upper echelons of power to revert to an old boys’ club, once in a while accidentally. At the snowmobiling event where the mayor was hurt, not a single female councillor was in attendance — because they had not been invited. That was surely an oversight by the host, who couldn’t ask the entire council.

When women are so few among the council ranks, their absence becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are just two council committees with more than one female councillor because there are too few of them to go around.

Last November, just before Suzanne Côté was named the third female justice of the current Supreme Court, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin spoke at city hall, where she expressed her hope that a woman would be appointed.

“I, as a woman, find the presence of at least a third of the court being women to be a very good thing,” McLachlin said. “It changes the atmosphere. Gender politics don’t play a role once you get beyond a certain number, and we’re just colleagues deliberating on difficult issues that are brought before us.”

In other words, when women comprise at least a third of leaders, no one has to make a conscious effort to make sure women are represented at every event, in every discussion— we’ll just be there.

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