As a woman in politics, breaking glass ceilings isn’t even half the battle. Having a seat at the table doesn’t always mean the seat you’re at is the same size, or that it gives you the same access as traditional power holders. And all the shards left behind by that broken glass ceiling can be just another arsenal for those who already had plenty of weapons to keep us out of power.
My experiences in politics comes from serving four terms with progressive, left-leaning governments in the City of Vancouver, but this isn’t about left or right, or even politics: it's about every work environment where women are not traditionally in positions of authority. The question that hasn’t been answered is whether having women in the majority will make a difference. But we are about to find out.
With the stencils barely dry on their art deco office doors, Vancouver’s new city council has been getting down to business. Like many newly elected governments, they’ve produced a flurry of motions leading to long meetings and likely more than a few of them wondering if running for office was a good idea. While there’s much that could be said about the policy proposals and advocacy positions they’ve put forward, even with the livestream muted it’s hard not to notice the real history being made: eight out of 11 members of the new council are women.
It’s been well-commented on as a barrier-breaking moment for women’s representation in Vancouver. But having shattered more than a few glass ceilings in my time, getting into elected office is just the beginning of the struggle.
Four years ago — a few days before my first meeting of third term on city council — I was working alone in the council offices. When I prepared to leave the building I was attacked by a man waiting outside my office. Not attacked as in yelled at (although that was part of it), but actually physically assaulted. It sounds traumatic, and it was. It’s not every day that you have a guy threaten to beat you and then swing a skateboard at you while you desperately try to push him out of your office before the skateboard makes contact. But once I knew I was safe behind a key-carded door, I went about my business and didn’t even report it until the next day. This doesn’t belie some inner calm, but rather an inner wariness. It felt like a logical extension of the daily aggressions all women have to deal with in positions of power, and that I had dealt with from day one, term one.
On my very first day in office 16 years ago, I was young, low-income and elected as a Green. First I was written off as irrelevant, and then when I was elected, I was often trivialized and had to fight to be heard and seen. Fair enough: I was the first Green Party representative elected to a school board in Canada and people had no precedent of what to expect.
Since then, I’ve been elected to council three times and spearheaded nationally and globally recognized initiatives. I became the city’s first permanent deputy mayor, routinely ranked on “Best of the City” lists for elected officials, and was named to the “Power 50” four years in a row, the only Vancouver councillor ever to do so.
Erasure, gaslighting and harassment
Yet just a few months ago I had a former council colleague refer to me on social media as “kiddo” because I had the audacity to seriously consider a mayoral run. In this man’s eyes, my age, gender and lived experience prevented me from taking reasoned, autonomous action.
And it’s not just men. During the recent municipal election, a former female council colleague blatantly erased my role in a major policy initiative I had championed and inserted herself in my place. She’s older, much more affluent and apparently didn’t think lying at my expense is a big deal. The media I contacted to correct her lie quietly did so, but never publicly called her on it.
It’s this type of casual erasure that is the most exhausting, and the terminal stop on a train that’s travelled right through the last 16 years of my public life and has included being patronized, mansplained and condescended to, interrupted, gaslit, belittled, bullied, poor-shamed, sexualized, harassed and ultimately physically assaulted.
If you see a non-traditional power-holder being patronized, mansplained and condescended to, interrupted, gaslit, belittled, bullied, poor-shamed, sexualized, harassed or otherwise erased, say something. #feminism #politics
I know I am not alone. Only three of the region’s 21 municipalities had women as mayors prior to the 2018 election and all decided not to run for mayor again. Regardless of what you think about their politics, or mine, the whole point of democracy was to move away from a system where privilege trumped reasoned debate.
There is one basic rule that must exist in a democracy: if everyone is created equally, then everyone has an equal right to participate in governance. When groups of us — large groups of us — are relegated to “kiddo” status by those who enjoy gender, race and class privilege, they are telling us they do not view women, or Indigenous people, or people of colour, or millennials, or people with modest incomes, or anyone who is not them, as equals. That’s not freedom of speech in an empowered democracy: it’s just power using its privilege to further itself.
Despite a large contingent of women, privilege does still define this council which is now painfully white in a city that is celebrated for being anything but that. Those that have trumpeted the numbers of women without referencing this have missed the point on representation. The barriers that make municipal government exhausting for white-passing women are the same ones preventing Indigenous people and people of colour from getting there at all.
Ways to amplify and support women facing discrimination
There are things that can be done to support the women who are there, while still recognizing there is a long way to go on representation and a fully actualized democracy.
1. Speak up: When I was on school board, I learned a lot about bullying. Simple lesson: bullies won’t stop and victims can’t stop the bullying so it’s up to the onlookers to take action. If you see a non-traditional power-holder being patronized, mansplained and condescended to, interrupted, gaslit, belittled, bullied, poor-shamed, sexualized, harassed or otherwise erased, say something.
2. Mindful language choices: Using “kiddo” and “girl” as synonyms for “woman” are obvious no-no’s but the pervasive problem is much more subtle. Standing up for women’s equity means using language that doesn’t mark us as “other” when we are holding the positions of power that men routinely do. Let’s put it this way: if the dude chairing a meeting is a chair, then the woman doing the same is not a “Madame” Chair.
3. Empower more voices: Despite a raft of motions at the first few council meetings, no one sought to re-establish the resident advisory committees which appoint several hundred residents to provide policy advice from lived experiences. For the past 10 years this included renters, seniors, urban Indigenous people, children, youth and people of colour. Committees have a mandated requirement for a minimum 50 per cent women and girls, and prior to dissolution had broad ethnic, class, age and geographic representation. The council needs to re-establish these to broaden the narrow perspective it represents.
4. Use the F word: It’s a mistake to believe that being a woman makes you a feminist. There were five women on the last council and five feminists but they were not exactly the same people. Hold women accountable not to what they are, but for how they choose to show up for other women and girls who haven’t had the privilege or power these women enjoy. Holding women accountable for their legitimate actions is as important a sign of respect as the kind of kudos men of achievement are awarded every day.
Reading this, you may be left with some questions. For example, did these issues play a role in my decision not to run again? They did.
In fact, it was the single largest factor. On vacation with my family a couple of years ago, I realized I was exhausted. Some of this was from the workload that women who come from places that don’t normally lead to elected office expect to endure, but most of the exhaustion was from the sheer effort of dealing with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of daily cuts... and the silence of those around me who observed it and did nothing beyond acknowledging that it must be difficult to cope with.
I am taking the mute button off in the hopes that the women that come after me don’t become victims of their success, a success our democracy desperately needs to have fully empowered to become a truly representative democracy.