Half the population; quarter of the representation

    HEATHER WRIGHT PHOTO Councillors Debb Pitell and Liz Welsh watch as Brad Loosley is sworn in as mayor of Petrolia Nov. 15. Last term, there were no women on council in Petrolia.

    Just 24 per cent of councillors in Central Lambton are women

    Blake Elllis/Local Journalism Initiative

    While over half of the people in Canada are women, less than 24 per cent of the seats around the council table are being occupied by women.
    The under representation of women comes into sharp focus as the municipal councils in The Independent’s coverage area took office in the last 10 days.
    The Independent covers eight municipal councils. Seven have at least one woman, but four councils have two. Warwick Township doesn’t have any women elected to the 2022-2026 council.
    With only 11 women on the eight councils which have 46 seats in total, that is 23.9 per cent representation.
    Not a single council has a woman leading it this term after former Mayor Jackie Rombouts was defeated in Warwick Township in October.
    There is only one head of council in all of Lambton County; Mayor Bev Hand in Point Edward. She’s also the current deputy warden.
    Perhaps it’s not surprising only 24 per cent of the people elected were women in Central Lambton considering out of the 76 candidates just 25 per cent were women.
    Central Lambton is not alone – although the lack of women in politics is more acute than in the rest of Ontario. Just over 32 per cent of the people elected Oct. 24 were women according to data compiled by the Association of Municipalities Ontario. This is an improvement; up from 29.4 per cent in 2018.
    The lack of women running for office has not gone unnoticed. In Lambton, and across Southern Ontario, women who have been in municipal politics are trying to encourage others to step up. Helen Cole, the founder of the Jean Collective- an initiative to get local women to advocate for change and achieve their political aspirations in Lambton.

    Cole says one of the reasons so few women run for office is they don’t feel they are qualified.
    This municipal election, Cole helped 20 women within Lambton County. Her assistance was varied for each candidate from being simply a listener to mentoring and advising to helping them to design their campaigns. Six were elected.
    “Men get asked to run just once before they make that decision, a woman has to be asked six or seven times before they decide to run,” said Joanne Vanderheyden, the past president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities who defeated last month after being mayor of Strathroy-Caradoc since 2010.
    The reason why women need to be asked so many times before they decide to become a candidate is because they are juggling so many things in their lives, from work, to looking after the home, caring for children to self doubt, she says.
    “I still fight imposter syndrome,” said Cole, who served on the St. Thomas City Council for nine years before moving to Sarnia. She launched the Jean Collective in January 2020 after offering an online workshop, the Equal Voice in March 2019.
    Lindsay Wilson, is the newly elected deputy mayor in Ingersoll, but her involvement in municipal politics began when she didn’t see other women on council. She started an online campaign school in Oxford County. She didn’t plan to run, but in the end, she put her name forward as a candidate.
    There are a lot of barriers to a woman first deciding to run, said Wilson from needing to adjust your work schedule to finding childcare so you can be involved in your campaign or later your council duties. Social media can also be off-putting, she said
    Cole agrees. “It is so easy to be a keyboard warrior,” said Cole, noting women are more likely to face personal attacks online. “People seem angrier and that anger is appearing in social media.”
    Wilson’s campaign in Ingersoll seems to have worked with four of seven seats occupied by females including women of colour.
    And the Ingersoll councillor has some words of encouragement for Central Lambton women considering running for office; four years seems like a long time, but it really isn’t, said Wilson. Those considering running for a municipal council should start by getting involved in their community by volunteering or getting on a committee. They could reach out to current municipal leaders in a mentoring capacity and developing a support network, which is needed during a campaign.
    And the former Strathroy-Caradoc mayor, Joanne Vanderheyden, stressed the drive for better female representation on council can’t be about just increasing the number of women on council. She says the right women – with leadership skills, a knowledge of municipal issues and a love of their community – need to step forward.

    The Local Journalism Initiative supports the creation of original civic journalism that covers the diverse needs of underserved communities across Canada.