Melanee Thomas's research focuses on gender-based political inequality. Photo: Jeremy Klaszus

For a better city, we need women in power

The importance of gender parity in Calgary politics.

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In the last decade, Calgary has made it a few times to the top five of The Economist’s Global Liveability Index. In the same period, our city has also been ranked twice by the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives as one of the worst cities for women.

This is not surprising, considering that in the last 145 years Calgary’s leadership has been dominated by men. And white, cisgender men of a certain age continue to lead the municipal discourse in the twenty-first century.

In the last 20 years, the men-to-women ratio in Calgary has consistently remained around 1:1. Nevertheless, only seven women have been elected to city council since 2001.

Calgary has never had a female mayor—and it shows.

Built in spurts during oil and gas booms, Calgary is an unequal city built for those privileged enough to choose where on Earth they want to live. It happened in the 1970s and then again in the early and mid-2000s, when housing starts skyrocketed and then fell flat. To accommodate new growth, council made decisions that still burden Calgarians today.

Calgary has never had a female mayor — and it shows.

To build a city that accommodates the needs and values of a majority of Calgarians, we need decision-makers reflective of the diversity of our population—starting with gender. Women make up nearly 50% of Calgary’s total population, so why are there only three women on city council?

One common explanation is that men are just more ambitious than women, but political scientist Melanee Thomas disagrees.

“We have structural problems in politics that are keeping reasonable people from it,” she said. Thomas is an associate professor in the University of Calgary’s department of political science; her research focuses on gender-based political inequality.

Addressing the gender gap

According to Thomas, a lower level of ambition doesn’t really explain the existing disparities. “The overwhelming majority of people in Canada have zero latent political ambition… Some of the studies we’ve done [found] levels of latent political ambition as low as 2% of women and 4% of men,” she said.

Despite the high success rates of women politicians in Canada, the main barrier keeping women from running for office is structural sexism.

Structural sexism manifests in explicit and implicit ways, Thomas explains. Explicit biases are the most problematic as these affect how society evaluates women. “Some people need to be several magnitudes of order better… in order to actually seem to be on the same level playing field,” she said.

“Our best estimates are that between 17% and 23% of Canadians actually hold [sexist] views and they are pretty ubiquitous,” Thomas added.

One of these manifestations is that, unlike many men, women in politics can go to great lengths before they feel qualified enough to run.

We have structural problems in politics that are keeping reasonable people from it.

Melanee Thomas, Political Scientist

“Women often feel like they’re unprepared to run for political office and that they require that additional skill, or training, or experience, and have to check all of the boxes of what an ideal candidate is to put their name forward,” said Gillian Hynes, president of Ask Her, a Calgary-based group looking to advance gender parity on city council.

“Civic engagement is even lower amongst women who are Indigenous, or women of colour, or women from an LGBTQ2S+ background.”

When Ward 3 Councillor Jyoti Gondek was first encouraged to run in 2007, she was quick to decline. “No, I am not the right person for the job. I literally know nothing about it,” she remembered saying. Gondek spent the next 10 years volunteering for others’ campaigns, sitting on boards and completing a PhD in urban sociology. “I wanted to be a city builder, and I followed that path for 10 years,” Gondek said.

“And then when I determined that all my work in the community, on various boards and committees, was not able to influence the decision-makers in the way I’d hoped, that’s when I took the plunge—and that’s when I decided I would run.”

Women often feel like they’re unprepared to run for political office and that they require that additional skill.

Gillian Hynes,

President, Ask Her

Understanding women’s particular approach to politics is one of the reasons Ask Her came to be in 2016.

“We know that women just have different styles when they want to advance into leadership, and we want to provide that support for women to level the playing field a little bit more,” Hynes said.

The programs run by Ask Her help women build their skills and confidence in leadership, fundraising, managing campaign teams, volunteer engagement, and even style. “We know there’s a lot more scrutiny on women—what you wear, how do you show up,” Hynes explained.

Candidates don’t want to be pigeonholed

Ward 8 candidate Anna Murphy feels the pressure of having to prove herself every day, but she doesn’t think it should be so difficult for women to put their name forward. “If you have a genuine intention to serve your community, then you are qualified to run and put your name forward to be an elected representative,” she said.

In addition, some women want to be elected not for their gender or the colour of their skin, but because of the objective qualifications they bring to the table.

“Me being a trans woman is not what is going to make me successful as a politician, it’s not what is going to make me successful in an election, it’s not gonna make me successful in the role,” Murphy said. What matters is that a candidate has what it takes to move Calgary forward, she says.

She wants to be perceived as the “full package” instead of pigeonholed as the trans candidate.

If you have a genuine intention to serve your community, then you are qualified to run.

Anna Murphy, Ward 8 Candidate

And if the playing field were level, this is how it should be. But structural sexism is rampant and the field is not yet level.

“[A level playing field] would actually just be focused on the content of ideas, as opposed to who’s speaking the idea,” Thomas said.

“We’ll have come far enough when mediocrity in women is perceived the same way [as] mediocrity in men… I think it’s getting at this idea where excellence would be acknowledged without bias.”

Another roadblock caused by explicitly sexist bias is access to networks, a problem that organizations such as Ask Her seek to mitigate.

“Political networks tend to be filled of the same type of person,” said Thomas. “People tend to gravitate to people who look like them, what we call homophily.”

Councillor Gondek experienced this early on as a campaign volunteer. “Most of the strategists and the key players on any campaign… they were all men and they knew each other, and they ran in these circles of influence,” she said.

And the danger of homogenous groups is that they tend to look after the interests of people like themselves.

“We need diverse policy makers, we need to reflect our communities,” Hynes said. “Because that’s when you start to see change happening—and honestly, a better-managed city.”

Women build cities for all

Today many Calgarians feel like the city isn’t built for them—especially if they’re not white, financially stable, cisgendered or able-bodied. Increasingly, Calgary is becoming a segregated city.

“If [diversity] is not reflected in the people who build things, the people who plan things, and the people who make decisions, then we will always be doing a disservice to the population,” Gondek said.

What women bring to the table goes beyond our professional degrees and qualifications. Women have a lifetime of experiences to offer, experiences that can differ widely from those of men. And we can see these differentiated experiences manifest in the cities we (don’t) build.

Historically, men have dominated the design and planning of cities, and able-bodied men became the “default” user of our spaces. Calgary is no exception.

Changing what “standard” embodies is key to dismantling sexist structures, as according to Thomas, “part of it is just actually seeing women’s experiences as not only normal, but something that necessitates a policy response—a serious one.”

The danger of homogenous groups is that they tend to look after the interests of people like themselves.

Cities around the world are increasingly becoming cognizant of these existing disparities and actively addressing them. Women-led cities like Barcelona are collecting data on women’s mobility patterns to produce transportation policies that are representative of the city’s population.

Ultimately, a city built by and for women is one that’s accessible, safe, healthy and resilient for all. That is, a city in which women can move around freely and safely at any time of the day. It’s a city that provides public spaces to rest and to breastfeed, as well as accessible public washrooms, to name a few ideas. (As opposed to a city where women are advised to avoid walking alone or in dark areas to help “prevent” dangerous situations.)

In Calgary, city builders have focused on moving people in their cars from and to work. Quickly. So the city’s largest expenses are transportation infrastructure and costs related to servicing a sprawling city. But less is invested on initiatives that would make Calgary a more inclusive city, like public washrooms or more affordable housing that’s family friendly.

Including a diversity of backgrounds and experiences in the decision-making processes shaping Calgary has already made a difference.

Since the election of Annie Gale to city council in 1917, women councillors have pushed for amenities all Calgarians continue to enjoy. Women leaders have championed our urban parks, community gardens, wheelchair accessible sidewalks, lower speed limits, and even our new Central Library.

The system structures in place hold us all back, hold the city back, in a way that is very much to our detriment.

Melanee Thomas,

Political scientist

On the current council, Ward 7 Councillor Druh Farrell and Gondek fiercely advocated for both the Green Line and safer speed limits on residential streets.

“We are building biased places because we have not thought out other perspectives,” Gondek said. “It’s critical to keep in mind that cities are the intersection of people and places and if you do not prioritize the people, you will not build it right.”

While she sat on the Calgary Planning Commission, for example, Gondek noticed an important flaw in the new design of St. Patrick’s island: insufficient washrooms. But as the planners disregarded her observation and offered unrealistic solutions, she realized that unlike herself, her peers didn’t have children.

“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” Gondek recalled. “…Because you can take your kids to the washroom at home all day long and as soon as they get in the car they have to go again.”

Challenging the definition of leadership

To reap the benefits of a diverse council and build a city for all, Calgary needs more than representation. Calgarians might need to go as far as to redefine leadership.

“If people think a leader looks a certain way, and we don’t have enough leaders who look different from each other, we will keep putting the same people in the same positions,” said Gondek.

Gillian Hynes thinks individuals can spark meaningful change in this matter. “There’s a lot you can do to help shift the narratives around who represents us in politics,” she said.

The typical male figure with promises of good jobs and low taxes, focused on creating the kind of jobs that will lure a privileged demographic to fill our sprawling city—and displace others further—should no longer embody Calgarians’ notion of leadership.

We are building biased places because we have not thought out other perspectives.

Jyoti Gondek, Ward 3 Councillor & Mayoral Candidate

“When someone comes to your door… ask them what they’re doing differently, how they’ll represent your community. [Ask them] who is part of your campaign team? Is it diverse?” Hynes suggested.

“You need people of completely different lived experiences—that look different, bring different backgrounds in leadership,” Hynes said. “That then become a diversity of thought and experience, and then you start to see gaps in your policy.”

This election is crucial for Calgary’s future. The city is dealing with an ongoing health crisis, the flight of young adults, reduced provincial funding and a dwindling economy.

A more diverse council will be better equipped to lead us through.

And while electing more women doesn’t necessarily guarantee a better city, striving for gender parity is a good start. “The more the women you elect the more likely it is you’re going to get the kind of women that want to engage in feminist representation,” said Thomas.

“The system structures in place hold us all back, hold the city back, in a way that is very much to our detriment.”

Ximena González is a freelance writer and editor with a background in architecture and urban planning. She’s also the The Sprawl's urban affairs reporter.

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