Panellists talk barriers to women in politics

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Barriers to the participation of women in politics were at the forefront of a panel discussion hosted at Thomson House on Oct. 28.

The event, “Yes SHE Can,” was co-hosted by the McGill Political Science Students’ Association and McGill’s Women in House program.

The panel featured four experts on women in politics, who addressed the unique challenges women face, including the media’s representation of female politicians and the lack of access to resources such as childcare.

“Just look at the caricature of political women,” said Martine Desjardins, a political activist and former chair of the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ). “They are always represented as someone working in [the] kitchen, whereas the men are portrayed as superheroes.”

Elisabeth Gidengil, director of McGill’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship, said women in politics face considerably more pressure than men to focus on their appearance.

“We never get to hear what a male premier or minister is wearing,” Gidengil said. “However,  it is a different case for the women, and heaven forefend if she wears the same thing twice.”

Desjardins criticized the expectation that women should maintain a polished appearance by drawing on her own negative experiences with the media during her time at FEUQ.

“[The media] thought I was having bad negotiations because I had no make-up on, because they said I looked sick,” Desjardins said. “So after that, I learned to do my makeup.”

The panellists also emphasized the need for women in politics to receive support from their families and increased access to childcare. Janine Krieber, a political science professor at the Royal Military College of Canada, suggested a lack of childcare services is hindering women from political engagement.

“Women occupy lower levels of power because politics is not very family-friendly,” Krieber said. “Dysfunctional daycares are an example. [Women] must consider their children and their parents. Women also need support from their home and especially their spouses to be successful.”

Another panellist was Patrik Öhberg, the principal investigator for the Swedish survey of the international Comparative Candidates Survey which examines the backgrounds of candidates in elections around the world. He said in comparison with other nations, the representation of women in Canada’s current political system is low.

“In Sweden, if a parliament does not have equitable representation, they better have a very good reason for it,” Öhberg said. “In Canada, it just seems to be acceptable.”

To address this lack of representation, Desjardins said that women involved in politics should help bring other women into politics.

“Women need to learn how to support each other in leadership positions and not be competitive to each other,” Desjardins said.

According to Shaina Agbayani, one of the co-ordinators for Women in House, the goal of the event was to bring the double standards expected of female politicians to light.

“The impacts of these standards were discussed constructively by our panellists in a way that, hopefully, takes a step towards challenging them so as to contribute to the wider discussion of how we can work toward building a more equitable and representative democracy,” Agbayani said.

Devan Braun, U3 Arts, noted the importance of increasing the awareness of issues facing women in politics to the McGill community.

“It is important to create awareness for such biases in politics because people do not realize that such double standards exist until they are pointed out to them,” she said.

The event anticipates McGill’s Women in House annual two-day trip this November, when female students will have an opportunity to shadow female Members of Parliament and senators.