Tuesday, July 24

Ontario parties chip away at old boys' club

However, exodus of one in five female members of legislature suggests elected office doesn't easily fit with family obligations

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty is making good on a promise to woo more females to elected office, with women accounting for one-third of the Liberal Party's slate for the Oct. 10 election.

Mr. McGuinty has pledged to have women candidates in half the seats not held by the Liberals. He is well on his way to fulfilling that goal, with women's names on the ballot in 19 of those 39 ridings. Among the 92 Liberal candidates nominated so far, 32 are women.

Politicians, academics and women's groups have for years said there is too much testosterone at all levels of government in Canada. But the planned exodus of one in five female members of the Ontario Legislature raises questions about whether the goal of addressing the gender imbalance remains elusive. Five of the legislature's 26 women members have chosen not to run in the coming election.

"It's a discouraging signal," said Rosemary Speirs, founding chairwoman of Equal Voice, a national organization dedicated to getting more women elected to all levels of government. She sent a letter to all of the 103 MPPs at Queen's Park on Friday, expressing her concern that not enough women may be nominated in winnable ridings to replace the losses.

Greg Sorbara, Ontario Finance Minister and chairman of the Liberal campaign, conceded that politics pretty much remains a boys' club, despite the best intentions of many leaders to attract more women. The departure of so many women at once in Ontario sends a message to every parliament that politicians need to do more to make elected office more hospitable to women and more family friendly, he said.

"Over the centuries, parliaments have been male dominated. That is changing and changing rapidly."

All three major party leaders in Ontario are making a concerted effort to attract more women candidates for the election, Ms. Speirs said.

Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory acknowledged that he will likely fall short of his goal of having women make up one-third of his party's candidates. Unlike the Liberal Party, which allows its leader to appoint a certain number of candidates, those running for the Tories must be nominated. Some 34 women have sought nominations for the Tories but only 21 have gotten the nod so far in 91 ridings.

"We desperately need the presence of more women in terms of the perspective they bring on issues," Mr. Tory said in an interview. He also called for reforms, saying the long hours and macho environment make it a challenge to attract more women to public life.

New Democrat Leader Howard Hampton said half of his party's slate will be female. The party is nominating record numbers of women, but their chances of winning in many ridings are slim.

Women now hold 25 per cent of the 103 seats in the provincial legislature; redistribution in the election will expand the number to 107. This is slightly better than the House of Commons, where women make up just 21 per cent of members. (Federal Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion has promised that one-third of his party's slate in the next election will be female.)

In Ontario, women have won five of the nine by-election races since 2003, including three for the Tories.

But the fact that five women are not running for re-election raises the age-old question of whether family obligations continue to hold back mothers.

Veteran New Democrat Shelley Martel was the first to announce her retirement from politics after 20 years to spend more time with her two young children. Cabinet minister Marie Bountrogianni and Liberal backbencher Jennifer Mossop also cited family reasons when they said they were not seeking re-election.

Cabinet minister Mary Anne Chambers said health concerns prevent her from running. Liberal Judy Marsales plans to call it quits on Wednesday.

Ms. Bountrogianni, the mother of two teenagers, acknowledged that politics is more challenging for women. But she said women considering a career in politics should think of it as a term of service. She was an MPP for eight years.

Ms. Mossop, who has a four-year-old daughter, said she agonized over her decision to leave politics after one term. But she said she should not be held up as an example of why politics is not for women.

"I'm a poster child for my juncture in life," she said. "I'm half a modern couple and I've got my priorities straight."

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