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Where are the women?

After this election, at least three-quarters of Halifax Regional Councillors will be men. Why are so few women running for office?

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Trevor J. Adams, Photo: Tammy Fancy

Trevor J. Adams, Photo: Tammy Fancy

When Haligonians go to the polls on October 20 to elect a new Mayor, they’ll have six candidates to choose from—all men. There are 60 people vying for seats, in 16 different districts, on Halifax Regional Council. Of those 60 Council candidates, just 15 (25 per cent) are women.

Nine women serve on Halifax’s current 23-seat Council. Several of those Councillors are reoffering, but the change in electoral districts means that some of them definitely won’t return. With the smaller Council, several incumbents now must face-off for the same seats.

For better or worse, Halifax is going to lose some experienced female Councillors. In District 3 (Dartmouth South-Eastern Passage), Jackie Barkhouse faces a strong challenge from veteran Councillor Bill Karsten. In Distrct 4, incumbents Barry Smith and Lorelei Nicoll face-off. In District 8 (Peninsula North), two of the most active women on Council, Dawn Sloane and Jennifer Watts run against each other.

Other incumbent women Councillors are looking at tough fights, too. In District 5 (Dartmouth Centre), Gloria McCluskey faces no incumbents, but is being challenged by six other candidates. In District 7 (Peninsula South-Downtown), Sue Uteck is in a heated scrap with businessmen Waye Mason and Gerry Walsh, with Dalhousie hot-dog vendor Dawgfather PHD (yes, that’s his legal name) being the wild card in the mix. However those individual races work out, it’s quite likely Halifax could end up with a Council with no more than two or three women—four at the absolute most.

Some may accuse me of political correctness, saying that elections are a Darwinian process, the best candidates should win regardless of gender, etc., etc. To that I say: bollocks.

It’s just plain weird in a modern democracy to have half our population so under-represented in our local government. There are many theories about why the numbers are so skewed. Some speculate that women see the mud slinging and pettiness that occupies so much of politicians’ time, and decide it’s not for them. Others speculate that women simply have other priorities (such as families).

I’m not sure I buy those reasons. Most women I know are no more uncomfortable with mud slinging than men are. And most women I know are happy to share family duties with their spouses. In her book It Still Takes a Candidate: Why Women Don’t Run for Office, American researcher Jennifer Lawless has a simpler explanation. She says that most people initially enter politics because someone invites them. She says men are asked, both by political insiders and potential voters, to run far more often than women are. Could the explanation be as easy as just asking more women to run?

The predominance of men in politics is slowly (very slowly) diminishing at the federal and provincial levels, as most parties have committed to minimum numbers of female candidates. With no party politics to drive such changes at the municipal level, it seems likely that the shift will be slower, if at all. And for the next four years, Halifax’s Council will be at least three-quarters male. Ultimately, it has little to do with political correctness. It’s simply undemocratic to have such an unrepresentative government.

Do you think this is a problem? What can we do to solve it?

CLARIFICATION: When this issue of the magazine went to press, the HRM Returning Officer had ruled that District 4 Council candidate Angela Jones was ineligible, so we don’t include her in the numbers in the first paragraph. The Nova Scotia Supreme Court recently overruled that decision, re-instating her as a candidate. The online version of this editorial has been updated to reflect that, which is why the numbers differ from those in the print edition. 

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