Samara Appears before Status of Women Committee

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Happening Now Friday, June 15, 2018 View Count = 2480

Samara Appears before Status of Women Committee

Status of Women CommitteeFrom left to right: Jane Hilderman, Executive Director of The Samara Centre for Democracy, Louise Carbert, Associate Professor, Political Science at Dalhousie University, Jeanette Ashe, Chair, Political Science at Douglas College, Pam Damoff, MP and Vice Chair of Status of Women Committee and Sylvia Bashevkin, Professor, Political Science at University of Toronto.  

The Samara Centre for Democracy was invited to speak before the Standing Committee on the Status of Women on June 12th, 2018. The committee studies the policies, programs, expenditures and legislation of departments and agencies, including Status of Women Canada, that conduct work related to the status of women. It is currently looking at the barriers faced by women hoping to enter politics. 

Samara's Executive Director delivered the following remarks to presiding members of the committee. (Check against delivery.)

Good afternoon Madam Chair, Members,

Je vous remercie de m’avoir donné l’occasion de vous parler des obstacles auxquels sont confrontées les femmes en politique.

Je suis la directrice générale du Centre Samara pour la Démocratie.

Samara is a non-partisan charity dedicated to strengthening Canada’s democracy. Its action-oriented research and programming is aimed at making our parliamentary system more accessible, responsive, and inclusive.

Samara believes a House of Commons that better reflects the diversity of Canadians and their experiences will generate a more resilient and responsive Parliament, and can improve Canadians' willingness to participate in all aspects of public life.

Yet many groups – women among them – remain underrepresented on Parliament Hill and in public life. Samara welcomes this important discussion about what is necessary to create the conditions for a diversity of Canadians, especially women, to enter politics.

With this in mind, I will draw on some of the research Samara has conducted over the years that provide insight into the obstacles women can face in politics.

I will do this from three different vantage points: at the level of elected leadership, the level of the broader political workplace culture, and at the level of everyday citizenship.

1. Let’s begin at the level of elected leadership:

Samara undertakes exit interviews with former Members of Parliament, out of the belief that they are uniquely placed, having served on the frontlines of democracy, to provide advice and insights about the health of Canadian democracy.

The results from our latest round of exit interview include the perspectives of 54 MPs, from across the country and across the political spectrum, who sat in the 41st Parliament. Of the 54 we interviewed, 23 were women.

The first report in a series was published today, in fact: called Flip the Script: Reclaiming the legislature to reinvigorate representative democracy. We plan more to follow – including a deeper look at the role of gender. I’ll share some unpublished insights from the men and women we interviewed now.

These interviews reveal several key themes that align with other research on women in politics. Broadly speaking, many of these women reported that they felt their credibility and authority as a candidate and MP was more open to doubt than their male counterparts. The sexism experienced often took subtle forms.

Women reported that they felt their opinions did not carry as much weight as their male counterparts, whether in their caucus or in this very committee. This double-standard tended to be even more acutely felt by MPs who were young women.

In response to this environment, women reported that they were compelled to work harder, prepare more, and speak twice as loud in order to be taken seriously and be heard.

But even this tactic did not solve for some shockingly basic difficulties women face in Parliament, including inadequate washrooms, the need for changing tables for babies, and no room left in Parliament’s daycare. 

More evidence from Samara finds that the experience for women in politics is also quantifiably different. A year ago, we surveyed sitting MPs on the topic of heckling (84 of your colleagues responded). This research showed that despite sitting in the very same room, 67% of female MPs reported hearing gendered heckling, versus just 20% of their male counterparts.

Samara is currently collaborating with the all-party Democracy Caucus to survey sitting MPs once again; this time the survey asks you, as Members of Parliament, to indicate your interest in different reforms to the way Parliament works – some of which have been raised as possible means to improve the experience for MPs with young families, for example, like changes to Friday sittings. We are pleased to share that to date 60 MPs have responded to Samara’s survey, and we hope more will before the end of this sitting.

Let’s take it a level wider, to talk about the workplace culture around women in politics:

In the last year, the #metoo movement has disrupted every sector; politics is certainly no exception. Earlier this year, Samara partnered with Canadian Press on a survey of Hill staff. Never before have Hill staff been systematically surveyed about their experience with sexual harassment. 266 people responded, and 122 self-identified as women.

The results: 1 in 4 indicated they had directly experienced sexual harassment while working on Parliament Hill. These sobering results suggest the workplace at the heart of our democracy, Parliament Hill, must become a safer space.

This is not a problem isolated to political workplaces—far from it. But we know it can have particularly severe repercussions for democracy if certain groups are less likely to feel that they belong in politics. Those groups will remain less represented not only in elected office, but in the ranks of political staff and campaign volunteers – those who shape the political decisions of this country.

3. Finally, let’s talk about everyday political citizenship:

For the past 5 years, Samara has put out the call to recognize Everyday Political Citizens—ordinary people who are involved in their community and trying to make a difference. Several hundred nominations pour in across the country and a jury helps whittle down a list of 10-15 finalists.

Here’s some good news: Since the start of the project, women have consistently made up over half of the finalists each year. In short, so many women are mobilizers, organizers, advocates, and educators in every community.

But too often, when we speak with these nominees about being recognized as an Everyday Political Citizen, many say that they didn’t think what they were doing was “political.” An entire group of leaders in our communities seem to overlook that link. It’s important that we work to rehabilitate that word, and make clear the link between women’s democratic engagement in their communities and formal politics.

We welcome a discussion on measures to overcome these barriers, and improve the substantive representation of women in politics. I’m glad this committee is considering multiple sites and different political stages where action can take place, be that from civic education, to candidate recruitment for public office, to changes to Parliament itself.

Je vous remercie. Vos questions sont bienvenues.

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