It has been almost three decades since Toronto last had a woman as the elected face of the city.
“Just go for it. I will inspire [women] if I win this election,” Chow said during a phone interview.
Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) vising professor and former New Democratic Party (NDP) member of Parliament, Peggy Nash, views this as a potential to inspire young women.
“I think it could be a defining feature of contemporary life. And I think it could point the way for a lot of young women who might be thinking about getting into politics,” Nash said in a Zoom interview.
Toronto Star revealed in 2022 that 20 per cent of mayors and 16 per cent of candidates in Canada between 2006 and 2017 were women. In comparison, a population demographics report by Statistics Times shows that by 2021, 50.36 per cent of citizens in the country identified as women.
Toronto has had two female mayors in the past. June Rowlands was the first woman elected to become the city’s mayor and served from 1992 to 1994. Barbara Hall was elected in 1994 and served until 1997 as the city’s 61st mayor.
“Politics is a very male culture. And that needs to change,” Nash said. “If you do an aggregate of all provincial, federal, and municipal politicians, again, it is predominantly men with the exception of very, very small reeves or councils that are perhaps in unpaid positions or part-time positions — then you might see more women.”
Having a female role model in politics can help inspire women to enter roles typically dominated by men, according to research.
Dr. Cristine de Clercy, an associate professor in the Leadership and Democracy Laboratory at Western University, said that having over a hundred candidates in this byelection is a positive thing for democracy and ensures that women candidates could have a higher competitivity rate.
“I think that’s actually a very positive sign that democracy is alive and well in Toronto,” she said. “And also, many of those candidates are women candidates who are running very competitive campaigns. So, it seems to me there’s at least a good probability that women candidates will be competitive in this election.”
Women politicians and public policy
Female participation in politics is essential to democracy functioning. According to United Nations Women, having more women in political settings leads to attention given to women’s issues, ensuring gender equality and “genuine democracy.”
de Clercy said the lack of female representation and the difficulty for women to be elected in Canada indicates a problem in democracy since the country’s political systems should be able to represent diverse voices.
“If only, you know, older, males of the majority group are regularly elected to office, our democratic processes lose out, we lose out because we don’t have diverse voices, we do not have alternative perspectives in the political arena. So that’s a real problem, too,” she said.
Nash said having women in power can increase Canadians’ quality of life because women may have a different approach to public policy.
“Women are more sensitive to the needs of public services, they use more health care, they use more transit, they’re more involved in education, and they are more likely to want to fund these services,” she said. “Whereas some men will not see the need for them and are more inclined to cut public spending and be more focused on reducing taxes.”
According to Women Deliver, women politicians tend to prioritize different policies that tackle quality of life, family, women, and ethnic and racial minorities.
For instance, a study conducted in more than 150 developing countries shows that countries with more women in parliament “are more likely to pass comprehensive laws on sexual harassment, rape, divorce, and domestic violence.”
Chow said the biggest quality women can bring into politics is empathy. “Back to the point of being empathetic, I understand what people are going through, and life is not affordable… I get it,” she said. “I know what it means to be stuck in traffic, stuck waiting for buses, stuck waiting for affordable housing. And having a female mayor being empathetic to those would put those as a priority, which will then make the city a more caring and better city for everyone.”
Work is still needed
Although electing a third female mayor for Toronto is a possibility in 2023, a lot still needs to be done in order to have more women representation in Canadian politics.
“I would say that the ability of women candidates to succeed in achieving public office is improving very, very slowly,” de Clercy said.
Chow said women might not feel compelled to enter politics, due to a lack of confidence and the belief that they don’t have the needed connections or financial means to support a campaign.
She also said that being highly empathetic can be seen as a weakness by others. “One could be empathetic, strong, and bold. But empathy, often connected to a woman, is not valued as much as other attributes.”
Nash believes that reaching out to young women, setting role models, and supporting women politicians are keys to reducing underrepresentation.
The former member of parliament released a book last year called Women Winning Office: An Activist’s Guide to Getting Elected, which aims to support women who wish to enter politics but need guidance. In her book, she addresses the difficulties of overcoming discouragement, relationship conflicts, financial burdens, time management, age expectations, and more.
“That’s part of my contribution,” she said. “And I teach young women about politics, and I connect them with role models so that they can see that politicians are real people. They have the same concerns and preoccupations as everyone else.”
“And women in politics are not superhuman, but they are role models,” Nash said.
Female representation in politics and efforts to include women in political settings have risen in the past years worldwide.
“I believe that countries with proportional representation can create better gender representation based on the quotas that they put in place,” Nash said. “So, we could do that. But I think parties, in our current electoral system, parties really need to do better. If parties decided that half their candidates had to be women, in winnable ridings, we’d see more women elected.”