Saskatchewan’s massive politics gender gap is bad for democracy. Here’s how to fix it
Sask Votes 2020 by Gregory Beatty
Women are running in the upcoming provincial and municipal elections. Not in large numbers, admittedly. But they are running. Why, of the 15 mayoralty candidates in Regina and Saskatoon, fully one of them is a woman. And of the Saskatchewan Party’s 61 candidates, a grand total of 12 are women.
Crunch those numbers, and you get 6.6 and 19.7 per cent. City council numbers are a little better, with 23 of 77 candidates being women (29.9%).
But really, only the NDP, with 28 women candidates in 61 ridings (45.9 per cent), has rough gender parity. And you have to look outside parties that held seats in the last Legislature to find a female leader — Naomi Hunter of the Saskatchewan Green Party, which also has rough gender parity in its candidates (as well as 15 per cent who are LGBTQ2).
Women, as we know, make up 50 per cent of the population. And if given a chance, says political analyst Leslie Turnbull of Viewpoints Research in Winnipeg, they will vote for women.
“In practical terms, they like voting for women,” says Turnbull. “Women also tend to be more undecided and less politically aligned than men. So if you’re trying to attract undecided voters, having women candidates can help.”
You’d think that would make recruitment of female candidates a top priority. But as the numbers show, Saskatchewan politics is still dominated by men.
And in an increasingly complex and fractured world, it’s an open question whether our province is being well-served by that reality.
Women Of Earth
On Oct. 17, Jacinda Ardern led New Zealand’s Labour Party to a landslide victory in an election where she won accolades for her government’s handling of the pandemic. Being an isolated island, New Zealand has a natural advantage in fighting the virus. Still, it’s not the only female-led country that has performed well: Finland, Denmark, Germany and Norway have, too.
That’s not to disparage the job male leaders have done (outside of a few obvious science-denying buffoons). It’s just to say that when qualified women get a shot at governing, they clearly can deliver.
Besides, no matter how well-intentioned a government might be, if it doesn’t have a diverse mix of people at the table when decisions are made, can it really be said to be serving a diverse population?
Winter Fedyk ran for the federal Liberals in Regina in the 2019 election. In the run-up to the provincial and municipal elections, she’s teamed with several women to create an online forum for political discussion called Women For Saskatchewan (see sidebar).
Fedyk says getting more women involved in politics isn’t as simple as just asking them.
“It’s one thing I find frustrating about the conversation around women in politics,” says Fedyk. “There’s some research around how many times you need to ask a woman versus a man. Men typically run right away, whereas women need to be approached more times because they tend to consider all the implications. So yeah, parties need to ask women to run.
“But at the same time, you can ask me to run into a burning building five times,” Fedyk says. “I’m still not going to do it. The building is burning. That’s an issue in politics. There’s something fundamentally broken so it’s not attractive — not just to women, but people who represent marginalized voices across society.”
Fedyk points to campaign finance laws as one example where reform is desperately needed.
“A lot of what we might think women bring to the table in terms of a more holistic policy approach does present a threat to those who have influence and power,” she says. “If they see a shift happening, they’re likely to use the power of their purse to silence those voices. So campaign finance reform is absolutely the first thing we need to change to get more women at the table.”
The toxic tone of politics doesn’t help, either. Sexism and misogyny are hard-baked into our society. Women in all walks of life have “war stories” they could tell.
And for female politicians, the stakes are especially high.
“Every woman who has been elected talks about receiving e-mails, or social media posts that amount to harassment and hatred,” says Turnbull. “For most women, I think they find it shocking. They might start out with the idea they want to run for office and help people, then if you’re successful, you’re bombarded with all this hatred.”
Turnbull has worked with the NDP in Manitoba. She says gender equity is built into its constitution to make the party more inclusive to women.
“Constituencies send two people to the provincial council, which is the decision-making body between conventions,” she says. “One has to be a woman, the other a man. There’s also gender parity on the party executive. So I think it’s important for parties to build mechanisms that draw people from diverse communities as a first step to getting candidates to run.”
When women do decide to run, Turnbull adds, they’re doing it at a younger age.
“It used to be difficult to get a woman to run for office who still had young kids at home. They tended to wait until they were in their late 40s or early 50s when they had fewer family responsibilities. Now, younger women are running who are prepared, with their partners, to blend raising a family with working in politics.”
Women and men typically diverge in how they vote (with women leaning liberal and men conservative). Without falling into the trap of gender stereotypes, Fedyk thinks women do bring a different tone to politics.
“There’s something instinctual that women have about taking care of people,” she says. “You don’t have to be a mother to have it, but it seems unique to women. We’re seeing that now with the pandemic where the first instinct is to stabilize the situation and make sure everyone is safe. Your kid falls down, you deal with it. You might yell at them later in the house, but your first instinct is not to blame them but to help.
“Women also have a history of being silenced and marginalized, so we understand what it’s like for people who don’t have that kind of power and who do need help,” says Fedyk. “So we’re maybe more likely to offer it.”
Despite the “we’re all in it together” rhetoric of the pandemic’s early days, women, in multiple ways, from job loss and frontline health risks to juggling work and family responsibilities at home, have been especially hard hit. It’s a stark reality that heightens the electoral stakes for women even more.
“I don’t think they’re new issues,” says Fedyk. “They’re issues women have been trying to get on the agenda for years. But what the pandemic did is offer a collective learning moment.
“We all experienced it at the same time, where we said ‘Holy crap, government services matter,’” she says. “That’s been the case forever, but because not everyone experienced the pandemic in the same way it was an ‘Aha!’ moment for people who may not have been paying attention to that message before.”
It certainly worked for Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand. The message will be a tougher sell in conservative Saskatchewan. Still, Turnbull thinks the Sask. Party is running a risk with its overwhelmingly male slate of candidates.
“They’ve been in power a long time,” says Turnbull. “People see them as being an old boys club with a lot of cronyism with their supporters in business and industry. The candidates that they’ve nominated generally reflect what is seen as a negative for them.
“It just reinforces the notion that they’re an old boys club,” she says.
The Power of Positive Politics
“I was talking to some women in my network about the upcoming election and how we wished there was another forum for more substantive policy discussions,” says Women For Saskatchewan co-organizer Winter Fedyk, describing how the project got going in August. “Elections, to be honest, tend to be fairly vapid. There are a lot of partisan talking points without getting into the meat of issues that should be of concern to people.”
Initially, the group thought about submitting op-eds on different policy issues to media outlets. Eventually, they settled on a website (womenforsaskatchewan.ca), where they’ve published over 40 short policy statements from diverse contributors on issues ranging from climate change and the environment to mental and reproductive health, Indigenous rights, rural development, urban planning and more.
While the submissions tilt toward the progressive end of the political spectrum, Fedyk says the goal is to be non-partisan.
“To move forward in a healthy way in this pandemic, we need to have a balance between economic development and good social policy,” she says. “Sure, you can’t invest in health and social services if you don’t have a healthy economy. That’s the Sask. Party line. But you can’t have a healthy economy if you don’t have good health and social services.”
Organizers have been encouraged by the strong public response to Women For Saskatchewan, says Fedyk, so the project will likely continue after the election.
“I sat on the sidelines for most of my life, and it’s only been in the last few years where I’ve accepted that if I want change I can’t just talk about what other people need to do. I need to do things myself,” she says.
“In just the last few months, women have got involved in the back-to-school and mask discussion,” says Fedyk. “There are women I’ve never heard from before who are speaking out, and that’s absolutely what we need to do.”
As a long-time political activist, Leslie Turnbull is hopeful that greater engagement by women will energize our politics — especially in an age where, as we’ve seen in the United States, hard-fought gains made by women and other marginalized groups in recent decades are under attack by right-wing populists.
“For too many people, politics has become ‘same old, same old’,” Turnbull says. “They don’t see it as being able to improve their lives. They can see politics threatening their lives, but not improving them.
“But if you have younger, more diverse candidates who are smart, excited and ready to engage with people on issues, it will hopefully motivate people to believe politics can have a positive impact on their lives,” she says.