Ideas flew fast and furiously during a speed-networking event Wednesday night, but it seems there is no quick fix to the underrepresentation of women in politics.
The Orillia chapter of the Canadian Federation of University Women (CFUW) organized the event at Orillia Secondary School as a way to discuss barriers women face when getting into politics, as well as solutions and how to implement them.
Seven current or former politicians took part: Simcoe North MPP Jill Dunlop, Orillia Coun. Pat Hehn, former provincial and federal Green party candidate Valerie Powell, former Rama First Nation chief Sharon Stinson Henry, former federal Liberal candidate Liz Riley, Severn Coun. Sarah Valiquette-Thompson and former NDP candidate Elizabeth Van Houtte, who is president of the party’s Simcoe North provincial riding association.
Each went from table to table, where attendees tackled the topic of the day.
One group saw social media as a barrier, feeling women politicians are singled out more than men for criticism. Hehn offered some advice: Don’t feed the trolls.
“I don’t respond to trolls,” she said. “They’re nearly always the same people. It’s a no-win situation.”
Image also came up in some of the discussions as, again, some feel women face a double standard.
“A man can show up in jeans a shirt, but you have to wear a scarf and matching shoes,” Ellen Cohen said to Valiquette-Thompson.
“The struggle is real,” the councillor replied.
That sentiment was being contested at Michelle Day’s table.
“You don’t have to be like a man. You don’t have to just copy them,” said the local entrepreneur. “You don’t have to have a big or aggressive personality to have thoughts and ideas and to organize.”
Cohen ran that by Dunlop when the MPP made it to her table. She asked Dunlop how she maintains her “profile as an MPP, as a woman,” while having a male boss with a big personality. Dunlop said she does so by focusing on her riding, fighting for services such as transit, long-term care and skilled trades.
Almost 40 people showed up for the event. Only three of those in attendance were men and, of them, one was the moderator and one was a reporter. The forum was open to anyone.
“When men see an event (with a focus on women), they tend not to attend,” said CFUW Orillia president Mary Silk.
Barb Shakell-Barkey agreed, and said men “need to step up to the plate and be the support for women to run.”
It’s not about women trying to push men out of politics, she added.
“Sometimes men feel intimidated, but they need to be told that they are equal,” she said.
Wanda Minnings showed up Wednesday because she wanted to network, but it was also out of regret. She had considered running for Severn council in the last election. She didn’t, and the candidate in her ward was acclaimed.
“I’m owning it. I didn’t put my name forward,” she said. “That’s why I’m here — to learn more.”
Everyone seemed to agree underrepresentation of women in politics needs to change. Dunlop pointed out three of the four Simcoe North candidates in the last provincial election were women, but she acknowledged politics at every level would benefit from more gender diversity.
“If women don’t put their names forward, that’s not going to happen,” she said.