Maclean’s panel: Frank talk about women in politics

Proportional representation? Mentoring? Kids in the House? A conversation with the Conservatives, Liberals and the NDP about women and political engagement

The Maclean's panel on women and politics featured Katie Telford, Michele Austin, Anne McGrath and Maclean's senior writer Anne Kingston. (Blair Gable photo)

Maclean’s panel on women and politics: Katie Telford, Michele Austin, Anne McGrath and Maclean’s senior writer Anne Kingston (Blair Gable photo)

On March 5, Maclean’s took a day-long look at women in politics at an event hosted by the University of Ottawa’s iVote-jeVote campaign.

Maclean’s senior writer Anne Kingston moderated the high-powered political panel featuring Anne McGrath, NDP national director; Katie Telford, Liberal campaign co-chair, and Michele Austin, Summa Strategies senior adviser.

Here’s a recap of that conversation—edited for length and clarity.

ANNE KINGSTON: Let’s begin with nuts and bolts. I’d like to talk about what each of your parties is doing to welcome a diverse group of women. I’m not talking just about recruitment techniques and goals, but also party policy.

KATIE TELFORD: A group of incredible women came to me about a year ago and said, “Could we launch a social media campaign inviting women to run?” So we launched that campaign and over 400 women were nominated by other individuals across the social media sphere. Of those, more than 65 have ended up becoming contestants within our open-nomination process.

ANNE MCGRATH:A lot of focus is put on getting women to run. That’s very important because if we don’t change the face of Parliament, then I think we’ll continue on the way that we have been. But there are all sorts of roles within a political party that are very, very important. Traditionally, as you probably already know, women have often been relegated to being the ones who stuff the envelopes and pour the coffee. I think it’s very important to have women at every level of the political party. Having women in key roles is a welcoming sign for other women.

MICHELE AUSTIN: Conservatives approach this issue a little bit differently. We believe that the best candidate is the best candidate, it should be based on merit. There is no particular program to recruit women, there is a program to recruit wonderful candidates. We have an advantage because we are the government, and we’ve been the government for a while, and people, frankly, want to participate. So I look out in Kanata, where Gordon O’Connor is leaving, and there are four individuals who are vying for their nomination. One is a woman, one is an ethnic minority, and there are two other men who would fall probably in a middle-aged, white-man category. And good for them, I hope the best person wins—because they’re all out there trying to get their nomination, and we see them not necessarily as women, not necessarily as minorities, but as somebody who can go out and win the vote.

KINGSTON: The NDP has specific policy targets in terms of representation.

MCGRATH: We have those policies throughout every part of the political party, whether it’s at the level of the executive, council or officers. Gender equity is embedded in every part of the party. It has to be, or we won’t have change.

(Blair Gable photo)

Michele Austin: ‘Women candidates need to stop thinking of themselves as women candidates and think of themselves as candidates and winners’ (Blair Gable photo)

KINGSTON: Well, I think this springs a bit from what Michele [Austin] just said, and that has to do with the innate problem that’s created when we start talking about women as a special interest group of sorts. It presumes our interests are all similar. Is focusing on the barriers facing women creating—at least perceptually—more barriers to entry?

AUSTIN: I can only speak to my experience. I grew up in a party without quotas, and without gender parity, or gender-equity policies. I served as a female chief of staff to a female minister of public works, who had a female deputy minister and a female chief of staff. All achieved, from my perspective, based on merit: not based on an exception, or a barrier that had to be broken just for the sake of breaking it. So, you know, I think that there are ways that you can accommodate different individuals. There are ways you can accommodate regions, and voting groups that you want to appeal to. I wish politics was always about policy, but it’s not. It’s about winning. So you have to, as a political party, find hopefully a policy and a candidate that appeals to the majority. As awful as that may sound, that’s how you end up winning and becoming government.

KINGSTON: Katie Telford?

TELFORD: I have to push back, and I know Michele was waiting for this [laughs]. This idea that we need candidates who are winners, and that we need to only win based on merit? I agree! But that suggests there aren’t women who can do both. Women are out there who can absolutely win contested nominations, who should be becoming the candidates across the country, but they’re not necessarily—as Anne said earlier—feeling welcome.

[The Liberal Party] decided we’re going to have to have more encouragement, more training, more opportunities, and we have seen women winning—to my absolute thrill—contested nominations in all corners of the country. And I would actually say that those women are beating out, in some cases, some extraordinarily experienced men. I really caution you on the language suggesting that by opening the door wider to women, we are somehow not allowing winners into Parliament.

KINGSTON: Okay, that takes us actually to the news of the last year and a half, out of Parliament Hill. There has been a steady parade of stories about everything from Chrystia Freeland being upbraided for having a “little girl voice” to actual cases involving sexual harassment and allegations of sexual assault. I’m curious to know, as we move into the federal campaign, what effect has this had? Are you feeling that the increased transparency around this problem has actually been something that casts light and created a conversation? Or has it been an impediment? There’s also talk about the idea of legislatures making Parliament a place that’s hospitable to women. Is that possible within the current sort of structural issues that we’re dealing with?

Watch the answer to this question below:

MCGRATH: I think it’s absolutely possible to make legislatures in Parliament more hospitable to women. You’re not going to have changes in the country unless women are there, in full force. The interesting thing is that in 1982, Margaret Mitchell, who was the NDP MP from Vancouver, stood up in the House of Commons, to talk about wife assault. She stood up to talk about that, and nobody could hear her because the catcalls and the shouting were so intense. And it is a little bit alarming to think: that was 1982, and some things have changed, but not enough has changed.

I think that when a woman, and particularly a young woman comes in, and is elected for the first time, it’s a little bit of a shock to find out how different Parliament is from many other experiences. I think the feminist movement has had a real impact, for instance, on universities. But having women in those places makes a difference. I think that the fact that there are women [in Parliament] who have children, there are women there who are pregnant, there are women who are trying to balance things with their families; that creates a momentum for changing things like the hours of sitting. Some things have changed. It used to be a free-for-all in the House of Commons with respect to debate and alcohol and all of those kinds of things. It is less like that now.

Related: #Project97, a year-long conversation about sexual assault, abuse and harassment 

TELFORD: I agree with everything you just said. Probably the conversation I have the most with women who are thinking about running is less [about] the culture—although we each probably have our stories to tell on that front—but more about figuring out how they’re going to manage their family.

I have a 3½-year-old in another city right now. I try to bring him along when I can. It’s a little harder now that he’s in school. I can only speak to the Opposition Lobby on the Hill—I look forward to changing that!—but I can tell you that there are kids running around during votes in those lobbies, and it’s a great thing to see. It changes the tone. I certainly have those conversations with women far more than I do with men about how they are going to balance children of different ages; particularly school-aged children. I don’t pretend to be the expert on what all of that looks like, but I think there are changes that could be made that could make everyone’s lives a lot easier, and especially women who are facing those kinds of decisions.

AUSTIN: I don’t think it’s only women who find Parliament intimidating, I think a lot of people find Parliament intimidating: it has a long history of being a predominantly male space. I don’t disagree with the things you have said with regard to structure. I think Parliament would benefit from a number of changes in terms of sitting hours, in terms of engagement with constituents in a different way, but for me, I mean, parliamentarians give up their Saturdays in the ridings too, right?

I don’t think you can necessarily just say this is a parliamentary problem. This is a problem for individuals in the private sector and the public sector.

I do think that there are a number of changes that need to be made, and Parliament doesn’t like to necessarily look at itself; the Board of Internal Economy is very secretive. I do actually applaud the Liberal party for bringing the sexual harassment issue to light, and having a public discussion with that. Parliament should be able to shine a light a little more brightly on what it does behind the green curtains of the lobbies.

And, yes, there are little kids running around the government lobby too, just so you know.

Related: Megan Leslie on the dialogue Parliament’s not having

MCGRATH: One of the things that’s most difficult, I think, in terms of women’s participation is at the level of the contested nominations. It is often hard to get women to run in contested nominations, and actually I always used to joke and say that my way of recruiting women was basically just to say, “Work/life balance? No problem, it’s really easy.”

TELFORD: That’s a lie!

MCGRATH: Absolutely. It worked!

KINGSTON: The contested-nomination issue is a very interesting one, I think. Could you speak a bit more to that, because it does speak to a cultural divide.

MCGRATH: One of the things that is difficult, I think, is that when you’re in a contested nomination, the fight is with your own party members. You all want to do a good job, and you all want the nomination, and it is a little bit of an “elbows up” kind of experience.

KINGSTON: So you’re saying women are less comfortable in that setting?

MCGRATH: It feels like that. It’s not always the case, but I do find that the place where women often get stopped at the beginning is at the level of the nomination.

TELFORD: The biggest challenge is getting the woman to say “yes” to running in the nomination. Once they decide to run, they are equally good at dealing with the terrain.

(Blair Gable photo)

Anne McGrath: ‘You’re not going to have changes in this country until women are there [in Parliament], in full force’ (Blair Gable photo)

MCGRATH: In all the years I’ve been doing this, I have actually never ever had a man say to me, “I can’t run because I don’t know enough about federal politics.” And I hear that all the time.

TELFORD: “… Do you think I’d be good at this?”

MCGRATH: “I don’t know enough about how the political party works,” … “I don’t know enough about Parliament, I don’t know…” Exactly.

AUSTIN: So we agree on this, nobody can sugarcoat how awful nominations are, and I think political science would do us all a favour by studying them, and that process, a lot harder. Nominations are awful, ugly things. You spend your time fighting against your party. Indeed, women are wired differently, right, and so they will not necessarily say “yes” at the first request, they will need to be coaxed and cajoled. They don’t often take advantage of their own constituents. If you’re a mom, a soccer mom, you feel bad asking your fellow soccer moms, “Will you support me?” So I think the nomination process is ugly for everyone, but it is particularly difficult for women unless you ladies [gestures to Telford and McGrath] tell them how to do it!

KINGSTON: I wonder to what extent that wiring is cultural? Women do not see themselves within the political process—and I’m not just talking about the famous Marie Wilson line that “You can’t be what you can’t see”—but rather that they just don’t identify with the political process in the same way. There’s a great tweet yesterday that went out on the Samara chat, which was “Parliament was designed in 1867 for white men and remains so,” which is a truth of corporate life as well. Do you see an evolution of women seeing themselves within the political landscape?

AUSTIN: They often say that men tell you who they know and women will tell you what they do.

Women actually, in my opinion, become cultured to accept the sort of military-style organization of cabinet and government and Parliament. They are able to work within it.

I think there is a wonderful new tool out there for women that they are not using enough. The digital world asks you to put up your hand and be recognized on subjects — anything from security to child care. I think parties are beginning to look at how the Internet nation, the digital nation, can identify and encourage women to become a part of the political discussion.

But then when you get to Parliament, it’s a completely different organization that doesn’t have electronic voting, or voting where you can vote in your riding if you have a child care issue or a sick child. So, yes, a lot of barriers exist, which could be removed, but women tend to adapt to once they realize where they want to go and want to be. We’ve had women speakers, we’ve had women clerks, we’ve had a woman prime minister for about 30 seconds—from my party, might I note! So there are opportunities, but it certainly seems to still be a bit of the exception and not the norm.

KINGSTON: Let’s talk about the campaign trail. Michele [Austin], you said that going negative from a woman’s point of view and from an overall campaign point of view are not compatible. Could you elaborate?

AUSTIN: Sure. So, what I often hear is that women say, “I don’t want to get involved in that politics, it’s so nasty, I hate question period, it’s so mean…” As Rona Ambrose’s chief of staff, I mean, you want to give yourself a scare, you look up Rona Ambrose or Michelle Rempel on Twitter and see what is sent to them. Every now and then we’d change Rona’s password on Twitter so that she wouldn’t be able to see it.

One of the things we often hear that discourages women from becoming involved is that it’s too negative, and the negative campaigns are turning people away. I don’t really think that’s true, for two reasons. First of all, we know negative campaigning actually does a great job in defining opponents and winning votes.  So as much as everybody hates negative campaigns, it gets everybody talking. Second, with regard to negative campaigns, there doesn’t seem to be, when you look at the data, a difference between men and women. Women talk anecdotally how much they hate it, but really, does it actually impact the way they vote?

TELFORD: I think there are different definitions of what negative campaigning is, perhaps. I almost hate to use the word “negative” because I think we all mean different things when we hear the term. I have seen women politicians who can be some of the best attack[ing], aggressive politicians out there, but they don’t necessarily go negative in terms of smear or getting personal. And I think it’s getting personal that is not welcoming or inclusive, frankly, for anybody, but particularly for women.

The other thing is—and I’ve been given this advice I don’t know how many times—“Act like a man, think like a man, be like a man, Katie, and then you can rule the world.” It’s advice that drives me crazy, but there’s a truth to where it’s coming from. There aren’t enough women to point to who have succeeded. There’s this view that you need to be like a man. Actually I’ve decided to start interpreting that advice as “Be louder, Katie.”

AUSTIN: I’d say that distinction is not “going negative,” it’s being negative. There’s a difference between pointing out people’s faults and being mean.

MCGRATH: I tend to not use “negative/positive” either, to be honest, and maybe it’s just semantics, but I often just say “contrast.” You have to do those contrasts, right, and that is a very important part of political campaigning.

KINGSTON: In terms of reframing this conversation, what would you like to see us be talking about and thinking about and doing?

AUSTIN: I completely agree we’re stalled in terms of the percentage of representation, and we’re stalled in terms of the conversation that we’re having. But, you know, when you try and be disruptive and say, “Hey, I’m not a girl, I’m just somebody who’s here for a cause, I’m somebody here who’s here to represent my community,” people tend to say, “Oh, but no, you’re a woman, and we need to do things to accommodate you.” So it sort of falls on both sides: I think that women candidates need to stop thinking of themselves as women candidates and need to start thinking of themselves as candidates, and winners.

MCGRATH: I think there are some things that are … “stalled” might be a good word, but I think that there are some positive things. For instance, there are a larger number of women in Parliament now than there have been. It’s not fast enough, that’s true. I think that the last stat I saw said that at this current rate, we would reach equality in 390 years, which is, you know, a bit of a stretch.

I found it refreshing when we had the 2011 election and elected a large number of young people and women. There was the sense of, “Why can’t we change this?” In Parliament in particular, there’s always this sense of tradition and culture, and this is the way we’ve always done things. But there is something incredibly refreshing about someone coming in and saying, “But why? Why can’t we do it this way? Why can’t we have children in there?  Why can’t we change the hours? Why can’t we have electronic voting?” All of those kinds of things.

KINGSTON: I would be remiss if I didn’t note that we are four women sitting at this panel. This conversation won’t work until men are there having it with us. Any thoughts on that?

MCGRATH: If we’re going to have politics and government in this country that actually represent the population, which is what democracy’s supposed to be about, then there has to be a change in the voting system.  The “first-past-the-post” system does not work.

TELFORD: I’m not going to delve into that public-policy rabbit hole. I actually am thrilled to see a lot of men here. I couldn’t do everything that I do if it weren’t for the network around me, both women friends, and my mother who helps pick up my son, but most importantly my husband. Encouraging those networks around women to support women is incredibly, incredibly important.

AUSTIN: One of the most important things you can do is look at how people are mentored, and how they are encouraged. If you have girls, take them out door-knocking. It doesn’t even have to be girls—take your kids and enfranchise them. Teach them about what the system is doing well; teach them about what the system doesn’t do well. Ask them to be a part of the conversation. But don’t simply say, “Oh, we can’t do it because we don’t have proportional representation.” Sorry, Anne, you know, you have to be able to work with what you’ve got. Sometimes it’s easier to change a system when you’re in it. So get out there, and encourage people to get out there, mentor them, and ask them to participate, and things will start to change.

MCGRATH: That’s right, I’m in the system to change it!

KINGSTON: Any last thoughts?

TELFORD: Two quick things. For the men in the room: Ask a woman to run. For the women in the room: I hope you all think about running, or getting involved one way or another.

AUSTIN: Find what you love and pursue it. If there’s a policy that you don’t like, or a policy that you love, go out there and be active in support of it or against it. But don’t just sit by or tweet about it, get out there and take some action and door-knock, and sign up as a member of a party—sign up to all parties, you’ll get a better candidate if you vote for everyone in your riding.

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