Gender a factor in mayoral sparring, experts say

Sarah Thomson leans firmly across the oval table.

“You being the common man, is a joke,” she says driving home her attack on Rob Ford.

Ford hardly seems to notice her efforts. With a laugh and a smile he turns to his neighbour at the debate as if Thomson does not exist let alone that she is unloading a barrage of verbal attacks.

It may be part of his plan to appear calm and cool against a candidate that seems to hold little chance of winning the election, but political experts suggest that it could have more to do with her sex than her position in the polls.

Last night the top five candidates for mayor of Toronto met for the CP24 live debate hosted by Stephen Ledrew.

While Thomson put her all into fighting it out, her opponents rarely returned the insults.

According to John Tory, a past mayoral candidate, preconceived notions about how women and men should interact play a huge roll in these debates.

“It would be, somehow, ungentlemanly like or unfair,” he said. “I think as a result, and I’ve been a candidate as well myself, you will find the prevailing wisdom, however correct or incorrect it is, you don’t do it.”

The men’s unwillingness to go head to head with Thomson may, in some ways, play to her advantage.

“Because it means they (female candidates) can beat up other people if they want to without much fear that they are going to be beaten up going back,” Tory said.

He also went on to explain many voters still hold some outdated views that may further help a female candidate, he added.

“If a female candidate chose to be aggressive in taking on the men, no one would criticize that,” he said. “But if the men tried to fight back they would be in trouble with some people. That’s just the way it is.”

When asked, Thomson was quick to agree that the male candidates hold back when debating her policies.

“Oh ya, from day one,” she said.

On the other hand, Thomson also points out not being part of the aggressive back and forth also creates its own issues.

“I have risen above it, in most cases,” she said. “It’s when you get on TV and they say, ‘You won’t get any air time if you don’t get into that.’ You hate to do that, but you do.”

This is part of the problem, according to Dr. Jane Arscott, author of Still Counting, a book about women in politics across Canada. Women’s different view on how to conduct themselves tends to leave them out of the equation in the male dominated area of politics, she says.

“Often they are on the podium with the contenders but you get this sense that they are really not in the game,” Arscott said. “Being sort of outside the ring, because so many of the metaphors around political contest are about duking it out and fight it out and they are just sort of on the side lines.”