Lyn McLeod says the political world is still a male-dominated one, something she’d like to see start to shift in the other direction.
The former Ontario Liberal leader said decades after she was first elected to public office, women still only make up about 25 per cent of all elected officials in Canada – yet they total 51 per cent of the country’s population.
There’s plenty of room for improvement, the 71-year-old said Wednesday, prior to making the keynote speech at Thunder Bay’s Women in Politics forum.
“We’re really only tapping half of the resources of some pretty talented people that are out there,” McLeod said.
“And we need good people in politics.”
Government decisions affect everyone’s lives, she added, and what better way to have a say then by holding public office.
McLeod said she was one of the lucky ones. Women running for office in the late 1980s didn’t face many of the obstacles they might have elsewhere in Canada.
At the local level, she was fine. But during the four years she held the reins of the Liberal party, from 1992 to 1996, she said discrimination would, from time to time, rear its ugly head.
“There’s no question that our candidates found there was some resistance to the idea of a woman leader,” said McLeod, telling her audience later she’s proud that Canadians at present have four women premiers, three of them elected, her comments coming hours after Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale stepped down, bowing to public and party pressure.
“I think it was particularly a challenge because when I was leading the party it was a very tough economic time and there are still stereotypes out there whether women can handle things in tough economic times. I’m hoping that kind of stereotype and prejudice is slowly disappearing. But it was certainly real then.”
Encouraging women to run for office is not much different than encouraging most men to run.
The starting point is having a clear focus on why they want to run.
“I think that one of the things that’s held women back in the past is that they haven’t always been confident about what it is they can contribute,” McLeod said.
Balancing work and family responsibilities is another question that must be answered.
Polls say while there is a greater sharing of responsibilities between men and women, the latter typically take on the greater share of the load, McLeod said.
“That’s very tough in a political career.”
Coun. Rebecca Johnson knows all too well the challenges of holding office as a woman. One of just two women on Thunder Bay’s city council, she said in a lot of ways politics is still an old boy’s club.
“I feel it’s time we break that down,” Johnson said. “Some individuals say well, why would you go out and want more people to run against you. I say the electorate will decide who is on the council. The important thing is to get more women there. If we don’t get their names on the ballot, we will not get them to sit around the tables,” said Johnson, strongly hinting she plans to run at-large again in the Oct. 27 municipal election.