Women in New Brunswick Municipal Politics — how do we get them there?

On July 8th the Fredericton City Council received a proposal from city staff to appoint 5 members to a committee looking at the development of the New Brunswick Exhibition Grounds. The one woman on council, Kate Rogers called out this proposal for including only men. She also spoke out publicly about the sexism she has faced on council over the last 7 years.

This started a public dialogue in Fredericton which included folks like former police chief Leanne Fitch confirming, from her perspective, the things Councillor Rogers was saying. The dialogue was amplified by the CBC on a number of occasions, including with a panel discussion on what can be done. The overall conversation included a number of ways to support getting more women around the council table.

On July 22nd the Fredericton City Council voted 7–2 to approve the original proposal of all men. Including the members put forward from the New Brunswick Exhibition Grounds, the committee will be made up of 8 men and 2 women.

I’ve spent the last 8 years in Fredericton so this didn’t entirely surprise me — I’ve often been struck by the lack of women and diversity around the council table, but I wondered what about the rest of New Brunswick? What do municipal councils across the province look like?

In Canada, only 18% of mayors are women. I assumed the stats would be similar in New Brunswick, but when I did a quick google search I couldn’t find anything.

It turns out the last media story written about women in municipal politics in New Brunswick was written in 2012 after the 2012 municipal election. The headline is Women make history in municipal election. The story states that “nineteen women were elected as mayors (18.1 per cent) and 168 as councillors (31.6 per cent), according to unofficial results from Elections New Brunswick.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting sick of numbers like 18% being record breaking.

But that was 2012.

Where are we at now?

Elections New Brunswick pulls together pretty good reports after each election so once I got digging I was able to find some great data.

The numbers didn’t improve much.

During the 2016 municipal election, New Brunswick broke the previously set record and elected 23 women as mayors equalling about 22%.

What I found to be most interesting though, is that this is the first noticeable jump since 1995. There was virtually no movement for 20 years. What changed? Is 4 % points really worth celebrating?

53% of the men that ran were elected. That number is the exact same for women. This confirms for me what the research often suggests which is when women are on the ballot, they win equally as often as men. So in this case, focusing on getting women on the ballot is the big step — 2016 also had a record breaking number of women running.

What about councillors?

The number of women elected to as councillors in 2016 was virtually unchanged from 2012. The number sits around 32% which remains a record high. What is interesting here is that women were elected at a rate of 69% compared to 59% for their male counterparts. This further confirms that when women are on the ballot, they get elected.

(*note when calculating these numbers I am using women/men who were declared as well)

When we look at these numbers from a province wide perspective, it doesn’t look terrible, but each council looks different — take the Fredericton example again. They have 1 women and 11 men on council with a man serving as mayor.

What can be done?

There are three major ways to support getting more women and folks with diverse experience into office:

  1. Get their names on the ballot

  2. Elect them

  3. Ensure that the system supports them when they’ve been.

I’m not going to focus much on 2 because as I mentioned before, evidence suggests that when women are on the ballot they get elected. Parties don’t exist in municipal politics in New Brunswick, but it’s worth mentioning that at the provincial and federal level it is often argued that if parties were to nominate women in seats deemed safe for that party, we could accelerate the amount of women elected. This goes for diverse candidates largely.

So let’s dig into number 1: Get their name on the ballot. It’s much easier in a system with political parties to put this task entirely on the parties — remove barriers to nominations, recruit more women overall, and recruit them in seats they can win. Parties also often have a full political machine which helps with voter identification, mobilization, fund-raising, and volunteers. Many of these tasks would fall directly on the shoulders of a municipal candidate. So sure, parties may have benefits at the provincial and federal level, but the lack of parties could be seen as more desirable for a municipal candidate. The hyper-partisanship of our politics can turn good people off. Candidates would also be fully free to voice the opinions they feel necessary, and the party bureaucracy would be gone. But back to my original point — without parties, who does the recruiting?

  • The principal of “ask her to run” is still huge at the municipal level, but instead of parties we have citizens. We can all do our part. If you’re reading this article, go tell a woman who you admire to run for office — heck, run yourself!

  • We can also support candidates with our time and our $$. If you can, tell that woman you asked to run that you will volunteer to help them get elected.

  • We’ve also got to do a better job at shining a spotlight on women and diverse folks already occupying these roles. It’s hard to see yourself in the system when it feels like traditionally marginalized folks aren’t welcome.

It’s hard to convince people to run when they see how folks like Councillor Kate Rogers has been treated. That’s why it’s equally as important to work on changing the system inside. I actually think this part is much easier. During the CBC panel I mentioned earlier, Councillor Rogers highlighted many things from her perspective that could make the Fredericton City Council more inclusive overall. Here are some easy steps that every single municipality in New Brunswick (really anywhere) could adopt immediately:

  • Diversity and inclusion training for council and staff. To me, this is a no-brainer. It’s not just about making council more welcoming for women, but also about serving all citizens better because you’ve got a better understanding of how to check your own biases and to look at policies and problems from many lenses. Call a trainer right away (hi).

  • Implement a gender based analysis + program within your organization.This is also not difficult. You could start by having all of your councillors and staff complete the online training course that the Government of Canada provides for free. And then simply commit to applying a lens of diversity and inclusion to everything you do. This also had added benefits for municipalities because the Government of Canada, and many provincial governments apply this lens to their work — this could amplify their ability to get funding etc.

  • Commit to gender disaggregated data — you can’t effectively implement inclusive policy if you don’t actually know who you’re serving. The landmark example of a municipality realizing that after snow storms, it is parents (typically mothers) walking their kids to school that use the sidewalks most and earliest so they started ploughing those ones first.

  • Review all of your policies and governing documents through that diversity and inclusion lens that we chatted about. Find the gaps, and then fix them. Councillor Rogers mentioned adopting a policy to have all committee appointments have a 50/50 gender balance. This would almost certainly come out of a policy review and would go a long way at changing the culture of work for the City of Fredericton.

At the end of the day, better decisions will be made when a diverse perspective is around the decision making table. We need to do better across the board. Whether it’s 7% women around the Fredericton Council table, or 6% of women as fortune 500 CEOs. Women make up 50% of the population, there is no reason for them to continue being left out of decisions being made on their behalf — and this goes beyond gender binary. We need to hold decision makers to account and join the movement #NothingAboutMeWithoutMe.