ABOUT THE RESEARCH
When women and people of gender minorities are elected to local (municipal) government in BC and Alberta, they often only serve one or two terms and then leave their roles. The Feminist Campaign School is an organization that trains people how to run in elections. For this project, The Feminist Campaign School researched why women and gender minorities choose to leave their jobs as elected officials, and what can change to make it possible for women and gender minorities to stay in elected office.
The Feminist Campaign School did this research in partnership with Climate Caucus and with funding from Women and Gender Equality Canada.
We researched news articles and published studies about the experiences of women and gender minorities in elected office. This included information from around the world, but our focus was on local and municipal governments in BC and Alberta. We discovered that there is very little published about this topic so we also looked at studies about other levels of government including provincial, state, and federal governments.
In early 2022, we created a survey for women and gender minorities who are councilors or Mayors in BC and Alberta. We emailed the survey to all mayors and councilors in British Columbia and Alberta. The first question we asked people was their gender. We didn’t include people who answered “man” or “male” in the final survey results.
The survey asked people questions including if they are married, if they have children, and how long they had been elected. We asked questions about how the job works for them, if the meeting times work for their schedules, if they have desks and chairs that fit their bodies, and if the pay and benefits were adequate for the amount of work.
We also asked them about:
- the workplace culture
- if they experience sexism, racism, or other hurtful or harmful behaviors
- if they received enough training to understand how to do their job
- if they were included in discussions and decision-making.
At the end of the survey we asked if we could contact them for an interview with one of our researchers. We used zoom for the interviews. We asked every person the same questions. The researchers could ask follow-up questions to better understand the interviewees’ experiences working as elected officials.
WHAT WE HEARD
We surveyed and interviewed more than 100 elected officials in BC and Alberta and we summarized the responses. We found that the experiences were similar in both provinces.
People who completed the survey or interview said that the barriers to continue serving in elected office include:
- not enough flexibility for their caregiving duties because these still are still primarily women’s responsibility.
- inadequate salary, benefits, or a pension for the amount of work.
- insufficient training provided.
- unsupportive culture if you have a disability and need workplace accommodations.
People who completed the survey or interview said that cultural barriers include:
- experiencing sexism, racism, and other forms of harassment.
- having to deal with harassment issues alone because there is no one with authority over the behaviour of people who are elected in local government.
- lacking a process to report harassment or bullying.
- experiencing physical, mental, and sexual abuse from the other people elected to council, staff, or the public
- having their personal information shared publicly and people using it to harass them at their homes.
HOW CAN THE SITUATION BE IMPROVED
We invited survey and interview participants to discuss how to fix the problems they identified. We also asked them who they think is responsible for making changes. The local governments need to initiate some of the changes. The provincial Minister of Municipal Affairs is responsible for creating laws for municipalities to follow so they could make some of the recommended changes. There are also provincial organizations such as the Union of BC Municipalities that could initiate some improvements.
1. Remove institutional barriers.
- Provide childcare so that mayors, councilors, reeves, and regional directors with young families can participate in local politics.
- Provide pensions and benefits to recruit and retain diverse members of elected officials.
- Provide full-time pay for full-time work to recruit and retain diverse members of council.
- Provide training for new members of council to better equip them for their roles.
- Develop and clearly communicate accommodation processes for people with disabilities and accessibility needs.
2. Develop accountability mechanisms.
- Standardize clear accountability processes across each province. For example, enhanced protections for women and gender minorities across the province, legally mandated codes of conduct with ties to greater independent oversight, greater accountability, increased penalties for violating codes of conduct, and legal options to address systemic violence.
- Establish a dedicated Provincial Integrity Commissioner for Local Government in each province. More specifically, we recommend that a Provincial Integrity Commissioner for Local Government should:
- provide anti-oppression education for local elected officials to help them become more aware of ways that local government is designed creates inequalities for people who want to serve in government (for more information, see Ethical Oversight in Part 2: Contextualizing Our Research of the report).
- Enforce codes of conduct “by investigating alleged breaches.”
- Advise “individual local government elected officials on how to meet standards of conduct.”
- Educate local government elected officials on issues of ethics, integrity, and personal conduct (Capital Regional District, 2017).
- Impose legal sanctions in the case of misconduct and abuse, including.
- the removal of councilors, reeves, directors or mayors and the implementation of financial penalties. This could help remedy the lack of meaningful accountability.
- Provide local councilors with education about rights and recourse to address abuse.
- Develop laws that differentiate between the content of closed meetings and information on the conduct of councilors during closed meetings. This would help prevent the weaponization of in-camera protocol against women, members of gender minorities, and members of other systemically oppressed groups. Racist, sexist, colonial, ableist, and transphobic behavior has gone unchallenged due to protections offered to perpetrators by this lack of differentiation.
3. Stop the normalization of abuse.
- Establish whistleblower protections.
- Provide formal support options for members of systemically oppressed groups who are occupying public office.
- Name abuse. Elected officials who experienced violence, abuse, hate crimes, and sexual harassment who came forward in this report were often silenced by others, which amplified the harm. For this reason, it is important for allies to name abuse when it occurs and to offer educated allyship by enrolling in anti-oppression and bystander training in order to enact solidarity in a meaningful way.
4. Counter tokenism and develop meaningful representation and associated democratic practices.
- Prioritize the collection of intersectional and data that reports identities and lived experiences about elected officials, including information on how many elected representatives identify as IBPOC, as women or gender minorities, as members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, and as people with disabilities.
- Adopt term limits. Term limits have been shown to increase the participation of members of systemically oppressed groups in public office.
- Hire chief administrative officers (CAOs/managers of municipalities) who have meaningful awareness and engagement with systemic inequalities and who have taken anti-oppression training, or provide anti-oppression training to extend their practice.
- Diversify CAO recruitment and hiring tactics to encourage more participation of women, gender minorities, and members of other systemically oppressed groups.
- Expand high school curricula on civic politics, local government, and the importance of democratic practices to encourage the next generation of diverse young leaders to run for public office.
- Adopt proportional representation, an approach to democratic processes that has been linked to more meaningful representation and political diversity. Learn about how proportional representation works in local elections at fairvote.ca.