In order for women to become a more representative part of the political system, we need to change the way we think about politics and gender. But until that happens, women will remain on the fringes of power, according to one King’s University College professor.
“Even when women secure a position in office, getting gender issues on the agenda continues to be a massive challenge,” said Allyson Parkin, a Social Justice & Peace Studies professor.
“Acknowledging difference among women is also a key issue. The focus still seems to be on getting white, middle-class women into office. Yet we need to think about how different markers – race, religion, ethnicity and able-bodiedness – mean our public leadership does not look like many of the people in our community.
“It is crucially important to get a wide range of voices ‘at the table’ to ensure our community development and leadership reflects our communities.”
A recent Women’s Political Summit, held at King’s, brought together 100 women, including city councilors, city administrators, First Nations chiefs, community leaders and students, to focus on the ever-widening gender gap in politics and how it needs to be addressed.
The idea came out of a mentorship program Larkin began at the Western affiliate with former London City Councilor Joni Baechler in 2013. Larkin felt it was important for her students to create a relationship with other women in the community in order to “figure out how the game is played.”
In the 42nd Canadian Parliament, for example, there are a record number of women. However, the numbers are not cause for celebration for many in a country nearly 51 per cent female. There are 88 women among the 338 MPs – that represents 26 per cent of the governing body, up one point from the 41st Parliament. Fifty of those women call the governing caucus home; 42 of them are newcomers to Parliament. However, there were no women on the ballots for 97 of the 338 ridings.
Creating the summit was an opportunity for women in positions of political leadership to get the conversation going.
“Women are torn between wanting to talk about issues related to gender and politics and not wanting to,” Larkin said. “There are those women who are saying gender is only going to be an issue if we make it an issue, and then there are those who have been in politics for years and have tried to play along with the boys’ club, but it has never worked.”
Larkin said her students only get to see the ugliness portrayed in the media – the recent U.S. election being a prime example. When discussing the election in her class – Why did Donald Trump win? How did Hillary Clinton lose? – one female student said race and gender played a role, while two male students suggested she was being a white racist.
“It’s not surprising. We really don’t have the language for talking about it,” Larkin said. “It’s not enough just to say ‘you shouldn’t say that’ because we haven’t fundamentally gotten to that deeper, cultural level where the way gender is talked about, the way race is talked about, is inclusive or respectful. There is just still too much latent sexism and racism.”
There are not a lot of opportunities for women to come together and talk about the different issues they experience politically. Therefore, the summit came at a perfect time.
“For most young women, it’s horrifying to think they’re going to get out there and be mocked for how I look, or my weight,” said Larkin, already working on plans for a second summit. “But young women are also asking ‘Where are we going to make the change?’ They want to be part of the debate and be at the table. That’s where they know the decisions are being made. But the cost is huge.”
Is there a solution to getting a greater female presence in the political arena? Larkin is “skeptically optimistic” that with so many strong and intelligent women ready to be heard, success is only a matter of time.
“We need to be working on multiple fronts. It’s hard because it’s one thing to change an institution – you change its laws and language in its policies. But we’re asking people to rethink something that’s very culturally, deeply, psychoanalytically imbedded – that they typically see men in positions of public leadership. If I could change one thing, right now, it would be the discriminatory thinking, that one gender is being seen as intrinsically more valuable than another, or one race being seen as more powerful than the other.”
For example, Larkin recalled a young female Muslim student who sat quietly in the back of her class last year. She asked her to be part of the mentorship programs and the transformation was “truly amazing.”
“She is a different person. She ran for the Youth Advisory Council in London and has taken on a number of leadership roles in the community now,” Larkin said. “Just to see someone who is afraid to ask a question in class and feels anxiety, to getting that extra push they need, I love when my students find a life that even I couldn’t have imagined. That’s exciting to me.”