From left to right: Hamutal Dotan, Kristyn Wong-Tam, Jse-Che Lam, Shelly Carroll and moderator Alison Loat discuss the roll of women in politics at The Front Page panel event (Images by Emily Loewen)
If you’re a woman and a city councillor, running for office or tweeting about city hall you are in the minority. In Toronto, and most of the country for that matter, men still dominate the political field. The new organization Women in Toronto Politics (WiTOpoli) is trying to change that – or at the least make people talk about it.
Last night at the Centre for Social Innovation WiTOpoli hosted The Front Page, a panel about how the media discusses women in politics. City Councillors Kristyn Wong-Tam and Shelly Carroll shared their experiences as female politicians in Toronto. Hamutal Dotan, Torontoist Editor-in-Chief, and Jse-Che Lam, a high school English and civics teacher, rounded out the panel with their thoughts on tweeting about and observing politics in Toronto.
The group, moderated by Alison Loat founder of Samara Canada, also had a lot of thoughts on how to increase the number of women participating in and talking about politics.
These are seven of their ideas:
1. Call out sexism on Twitter
As councillors who tweet regularly, both Carroll and Wong-Tam have experience receiving insulting and sexist comments. Both said that Twitter allows the public to call people on bad behaviour, something we should do more.
“I think it’s where we should be having this conversation about the role of women,” Carroll said, but she wishes that people would respond to bullies more aggressively. “I’m always surprised at how short-lived calling some of our colleagues on sexist or misogynist remarks is, it happens quickly and in short bursts and then it’s over.”
Wong-Tam believes that Twitter allows the public to respond to bullies who used to be more private. In the past when she received threats nobody else knew about it. The public nature of social media, however, allows the public to see those negative attitudes and respond. “That is the power of Twitter that you also get to expose the nasty bits of people that are out there.”
2. Get involved in the Toronto Regional Champion Campaign
The TRCC mentoring program partners young women with women on council, and helps them learn about the life of a city councillor. The campaign hopes to encourage young women to get involved and form their own initiatives by providing first-hand experience.
“Show them your lives, show them what it is you do and they will take it from there,” said Carroll. “A next generation of municipal politicians may take a different approach to it, but at least they’ll have some framework to look at.”
3. Find civics teachers who care
High school students in Ontario have to take a civics course, and so we should find teachers who can convince young women that civic involvement is important. As a teacher in the Toronto District School Board Jse-Che Lam said she has seen many young girls lose their passion instead of going into politics.
“Civics is one of those interesting areas where girls are very active in expressing their opinion in asserting the fact that they have a civic responsibility,” she said, “but then something happens along the way, we don’t see these same assertive well-spoken young women going into politics.”
The class is too important, she said, to give to teachers without a passion for it. To make a real difference schools need to find teachers interested in getting kids engaged.
4. Embrace the “Rob Ford Effect”
Rob Ford has been nothing if not a polarizing figure in Toronto. But Hamutal Dotan says at least one positive effect has come from that: more women getting involved at City Hall. In the past, people concerned about the role of women weren’t as likely to get involved because their concerns didn’t seem under threat, Dotan said.
But when potential budget cuts were on the table last summer, many young women like Anika Tabovaradan spoke up for their concerns.
“It’s unfortunate that they felt that kind of distress in the first place, but if that’s what gets them into the system then good on them for showing up,” Dotan said. “Walking into city hall for the first time is scary and a lot of people are doing it now that haven’t before, and a lot of women are doing it now that haven’t before.”
Jse-Che Lam shares her experience as a high school civics teacher, while Kristyn Wong-Tam (left) and Shelly Carroll listen in.
5. Teach women to put themselves front and centre
When it comes to successful campaigns it’s important for candidates to promote themselves, something Carroll says women find uncomfortable. Encouraging women to put their face on a campaign and ask for money to support them, requires long-term changes in how we socialize young girls.
“Some of us are really progressive in our parenting and really progressive in our youth leadership, and yet we don’t know that subtly we keep socializing women to get involved in causes and never to be brave enough to say, if we really want to achieve things in this cause I need to be leading it, and you need to help me get there.”
6. Teach women practical political skills
To get more women into politics it’s important to focus on specifics skills as well as big ideas, said Dotan. “It is not theory, it is not art, it is what you do when you get up every day, and we need to build capacity,” she said.
Female candidates need to learn how to campaign, and what connections to make to get into office. Instead of talking broadly about empowering women, “it’s just important to realize that there is a lot of very very nitty-gritty know how that we need to pay more attention to,” Dotan said.
7. Get women involved in the community
Getting women active in their wards before a campaign starts will increase their chances of success. Parachuting candidates into any ward just doesn’t work in city politics, Carroll said. “As big as the issues are in the newspaper when you get to the door it’s ‘hi remember me? I fixed that,’” she said. In order to make a successful run, “you’ve got to decide now that you want to run and then we help you get involved in the particular bailiwick.”
WiTOpoli doesn’t have any future events planned yet, but you can follow the group on Twitter to keep up with the discussion.
Emily Loewen is a journalist working in Toronto. You can follow her on Twitter @erfloewen