How to get more women into politics

An Edmonton, Alberta, Canada case study

September 2017

TL;DR: This is an explanation of how a group of volunteers encouraged more women to run in Edmonton’s 2017 municipal election. Throughout, there are references to resources we used. You can download them all here. If these resources are useful, be sure to let us know at twitter.com/equalvoiceabn. This post is cross-posted at lanacuthbertson.ca. 

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Act I

In the spring of 2015, the board of the Alberta North chapter of Equal Voice, a Canadian, multipartisan organization dedicated to electing more women to all levels of government across the country, formed a goal, which read like this: 50 per cent of candidates in Edmonton’s 2017 mayoral race, all council races and school board races will be women.

The next municipal election was more than two years away at that point, scheduled for October 2017. We were in the middle of a historic provincial election in Alberta: not only was the 44 year Progressive Conservative government ultimately toppled by the Alberta NDP, but the new Premier, Rachel Notley, had a slate of candidates that was 52 per cent women, which resulted in a caucus that was 50 per cent women. She named a gender balanced cabinet, too, a move that was later echoed by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and polled well with Canadians.    

After the 2015 provincial election in Alberta, gender parity in politics somehow seemed possible. Within reach. Tangible. Real. So we set our goal and started talking about how to achieve it. That’s where this story comes in. Since nomination day has just passed for the October 16, 2017 Edmonton municipal elections, the numbers are in. That means we can tell our story and share what we did to contribute to today.

We elected a new chapter board in March 2015, and by June, 2015, we had committed to the 50 per cent goal. Our board included a chair and five vice chairs with portfolios of governance, finance, communications, events and membership.

We spent two strategy sessions that June with an excellent facilitator. Here’s the agenda for those two sessions. You’ll see that on the first day, we spent a good amount of time figuring out the exact wording and definition of our goal, brainstorming piles of tactical ideas, then grouping and prioritizing them. These are our notes from the first day. And here is exactly how we worded our goal:

50 per cent of candidates in Edmonton’s 2017 mayoral race, all council races, and school board races will be women.

The second day, we continued brainstorming and organizing tactics, which ultimately resulted in a tactical plan for that year. These are our notes from the second day.

We came away from those strategy sessions with lots of ideas, and one really big, important, central tactic: ask her.

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We concluded that practically, the reason why women run for office is because they are asked. Not once, not twice, but three times at least. We thought, if what it takes to get women to run is to ask a bunch of women to run, how were we going to do that? How would we recruit women to run for Edmonton’s municipal elections?

The three big things we did in year one of two of this strategy were build a website (yegparity.ca), throw a campaign launch event and host a Speakers Series.

The website allowed us to build a base of links to resources, and gave us a central hub around which to organize our events, communications and candidate tracking. We also wanted the website to reflect the narrative of asking women to run, and asking everyone to nominate a woman to run. To that end, we made those sections the features of the page. We built this site on a wordpress.com platform and used a wordpress template. We have expertise in copywriting and web design on the team, which helped.

The YEGParity launch event allowed us to ignite and engage a community of people in Edmonton who care about stuff like this. This included a few other groups with similar goals to ours, in particular, the City of Edmonton Women’s Initiative. The launch event was also useful to announce to the women of Edmonton that we were coming to ask them to run, and we were encouraging their friends and family and colleagues to do the same thing. It also gave us a chance to start to tell this story to the Edmonton media. We hosted the event at a pub in downtown Edmonton called Mercer Tavern–they have allowed us to use a part of their space many times for our events. We spread the word about the event through social media and through the email newsletters of several community groups, plus our own.

The #YEGParity Speakers Series allowed us to start engaging directly with women who would potentially run for office. The series was intended to offer them a resource that was actually helpful, in content and in network. It was also meant to draw attention to the issue. And finally, it was meant as a first step, a way in, for women to think of themselves as potential candidates in a real way. We struggled with a consistent venue for this series of six sessions, but managed to find venues at no cost for all but one of the sessions. Political leaders volunteered their time to host the sessions. We had an average of 30 attendees at each session. We spread the word about the event through social media and through the email newsletters of several community groups, plus our own.

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Catrin Berghoff and Natalie Crawford Cox present during EVAN’s Speakers Series.

 

Act II  

In late spring of 2016, we went back to our facilitator and asked him to run another day-long strategy session for us. We had a good first year, but we knew the second year would be crucial. We also realized we only had so many resources–we had six eager, dedicated women volunteering for the board–but little money. We had a budget of about $1000. We all had full time jobs and families. We needed to refine our tactics and create an even more focused strategic plan we knew was as efficient as possible. Here is the agenda for that strategic planning retreat.

We also got real at this particular retreat: I asked each board member to anonymously submit answers to two questions:

  1. Would you run if asked? Why or why not?
  2. What barriers are stopping you specifically from launching a campaign?

In that moment, we reflected. We were a group of six capable and qualified women with an interest in politics and a dedication to their city, and for some reason, not one of us was planning on running. I thought that reflecting on this would be a good way to ground our discussion. It would help us understand what other women might be thinking. This moment would help shape our plans and how we would approach others to put their names forward.

Here are the notes from that strategic planning day. Here is the detailed and specific tactical plan we ended up with, which we checked in on regularly as we executed. I am happy to report that we did all this great stuff.

And here’s the summary of answers our board gave to those two questions above.

What follows is a summary of what we did during the year leading up to Edmonton’s 2017 municipal elections to reach our goal.

Key events: We had finished off our YEGParity Speakers Series in September 2016. We held a Municipal Campaign School for Women in February 2017, City Hall and School Board 101 in April 2017, and a FundraiseHER event in June 2017.

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Participants listen at the Municipal Campaign School for Women in February 2017.

Outreach: We presented at more than a dozen events and meetings about Equal Voice, and participated in panels and events in partnership with many other groups in Edmonton working towards similar goals. Here’s a quick list:

Here’s the slide deck we used at a few presentations.

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Participants listen at the Municipal Campaign School for Women in February 2017.

Public and Media Relations: We made a point of executing a robust media and public relations strategy over the two years of this goal. To that end, we garnered dozens of unique news stories, allowing us to share the message of equal political representation with a regional reach in the millions. Here’s a quick list of stories:

April 2015 – Alberta provincial election

January – February 2016 – YEG Parity campaign launch event

October 2016 – One year out from election

November 2016 – American election

February 2017 – Equal Voice Alberta North Campaign school

April – June 2017 – Notice of intent

September 2017 – Nomination day

Asking: Most importantly, we were a team dedicated to working hard, together, to connect with women. This meant one-on-one engagements and meetings to ask women to consider running for office. All of our board members had many meetings, conversations, and phone calls. At latest count, we estimate that we directly asked around 100 women to run.

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Act III

Now we find ourselves at the numbers. If you like data, you will love this. If you don’t, stick around anyway! We compiled these numbers because we wanted a clear answer to our question: had we reached our goal? Were 50 per cent of candidates in Edmonton’s 2017 mayoral race, all council races, and school board races women?

The short answer is yes, kind of. And the long answer is, there’s so much more to it, and so much more to do. And the good news is, there are more women running in this Edmonton municipal election than ever before.

First, a summary, below that, detailed charts and graphs painting the picture of parity in Edmonton’s 2013 and 2017 municipal election candidates.

Table 1: Edmonton’s 2013 Municipal Election Gender Balance Summary

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Table 2: Edmonton’s 2017 Municipal Election Gender Balance Summary

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The number of women running increased: the number of women running for city council nearly doubled, and the number of men running for council is slightly lower.

Let’s take a look at some visuals that may help us understand if we met our goal:

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We moved from less than half the races having more than half women candidates, to more than half the races having more than half women candidates.

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This chart shows us that in 2013, the only races that had a majority of women candidates were school board races. Of the seven races where no women ran, five of them were council races. The highest percentage of women candidates in a council race was in ward 2–the only ward currently represented by a woman councillor.

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The 2017 chart looks different. Three council wards, as opposed to zero in 2013, have 50 per cent or more women candidates: 5, 2, and 10. There are only three races this time where no women are running, two of which are council races: ward 1 and ward 6.

If you’re curious about the full data picture, you can check out our spreadsheet here.

And finally, here’s a picture looking back to 1960 in Edmonton’s municipal election history. At the current rate of change, which has accelerated this year, it will take until 2030 to reach gender parity among Edmonton’s municipal election candidates, but only if we continue to work together as a community to actively recruit women to run.

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Act IV

We have some survey results to help fill in the story around why women chose to run.

We sent a survey on August 14, 2017, to all the women who had registered their intent to run for Edmonton’s 2017 municipal elections at that point: 39 women. We asked for responses by Monday, August 28, 2017 and received 18. You can check out the survey here.

In general, a few themes emerged.

First, it seems awareness about the lack of women on Edmonton City Council after the 2013 election motivated women to run in the 2017 election:

“Learning that there were no women candidates in 6 of the Wards during the last municipal election impacted my decision to run.”

Resources provided to support women in running helped. In addition to Equal Voice Alberta North’s strategy, resources were provided by the City of Edmonton’s Women’s Initiative, particularly their Opening the Potential program, and by the Alberta government Status of Women ministry under their Ready for Her program, among other initiatives:

“Attending Equal Voice sessions and “Opening the Potential” made me realize I was a lot more prepared than I thought. It helped me shift my thinking about my readiness. It also forced me to think about it on a regular basis (after which I would talk myself out of it and be really down for a week or two).”

We asked women whether these programs, workshops and events meant to help women run for office impacted their decision to run. The chart below shows a range from 0 to 5, where 0 means the women didn’t participate in programs, and 5 means these programs were essential to their decision to run. About 75 per cent agreed that programs like these helped them at least to some extent. About 25 per cent said they were absolutely essential and they wouldn’t have run without them. 

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Respondents mentioned recent elections as a motivation in a few cases. Seeing the Alberta NDP elect women at equal numbers to men in 2015 inspired women to run, and the results and dialogue around the American election in November 2016 motivated women as well.

“The 2015 provincial election was emboldening. Knowing that there is a cohort of women in public office makes it feel less isolated. Seeing the crap that they get because they are women also made me realize that as awful as it is, the only way to change it is to normalize diverse women in public life.”

We asked women how many times they were asked to run. A network of ‘askers’ was something we strived to create. About 65 per cent of women who responded were asked at least once–and a third of those women were asked five times or more before they decided to run.

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“A close personal friend who is politically involved asked me whether I’d considered running. Her advice and support was critical in the decision to run.”

May women mentioned that volunteering on past campaigns and in leadership roles in their communities was important in exposing them to politics and ultimately helping them decide to run.

“Volunteering for other campaigns, working with community groups, advocating and meeting with elected officials [encouraged me to run].”

As we expected, a number of factors go into a woman’s decision to run for office. And barriers still exist. We asked women what barriers they continue to face, and many mentioned childcare, fundraising and the negativity that can exist in politics. We asked what more an organization like Equal Voice could do to help. They had some great feedback and ideas, like formal mentorship and encouragement, detailed resources and help building a network of supporters. Needless to say, there’s lots of work left to do.

Act V

I wanted to tell this story for a few reasons.

I hope others out there working for gender equality can use this as a resource. If you’re reading this and feeling inspired to act, we are always looking for help and volunteers, including new board members. Email us at evabnorth@gmail.com. If you’re not in Edmonton, or in Alberta, Equal Voice has many chapters across Canada. Check out how you can get involved here. If you’re outside of Canada, some Googling will get you going. There are organizations like ours in many countries around the world.

Documenting the work it takes to move the needle, even slightly, emphasizes that change won’t just happen on its own. At least, it will take way too long.

We need more women in politics because a diverse range of voices at our democratic decision making tables makes a positive difference, not only for women and girls, who see women in politics on the news or on their class field trips to City Hall and feel inspired to be like them one day, but for our whole population.

The business of achieving gender balance in politics is complex. The barriers run deep. We had to try something. We decided to focus on recruiting women, on getting more women to run in the first place. We know that getting more women’s names on the ballot isn’t the whole story, but it is a big part of the story. By changing the narrative on that front, we can change the narrative in other ways. Having just a few more women’s voices heard at candidate forums and around the council tables means that they can also be the advocates for the change we need. They can help promote systemic change efforts focused on making city halls, legislatures and parliaments more diverse and inclusive places to be, therefore speeding up the feedback loop that makes politics more appealing for women and other diverse groups and ultimately, bettering our democracy and our society.

 

Act V

RESOURCES

Here’s a link to download all the resources mentioned in this post.

ALLIES

All of this was possible due in large part to an awesome community of leaders in Edmonton who donated their time to give workshops and presentations. We also received support from a number of groups who donated space for these events, including the City of Edmonton Women’s Initiative and ATB Financial.

We received sponsorship from the City of Edmonton Women’s Initiative for the campaign school, which allowed us to return each attendee’s $20 registration fee back to her at the door as her first campaign donation. The Alberta Real Estate Association sponsored our FundraiseHER event, which allowed us to host a fundraiser for declared female candidates and potential donors. Calder Bateman donated their space and the time of one of their best strategic planners to help us plan all this. Display Design donated our stand up banner. It takes a village–or rather, a truly great city.

Here’s a brief, and I am certain incomplete, list of the many people who contributed to this goal:

Equal Voice Alberta North current board members:

  • Lana Cuthbertson (Chair)
  • Amanda Dunlop (Vice Chair Finance)
  • Marion Fyshe (Vice Chair Events)
  • Ann Gordon (Vice Chair Governance)
  • Kasey Machin (Vice Chair Membership)
  • Dorothy Reike (Vice Chair Communications)
  • Amanda Nielsen (Past Chair)

Equal Voice Alberta North former board members:

  • Janet Buckmaster
  • Kelin Flanagan
  • Carlynn McAneeley
  • Brittany Petruniak
  • Bethany Tynes

Volunteers and people who have helped:

  • Gillian Brown
  • Glinis Buffalo
  • Jennifer Burgess
  • Jacquie Comer
  • Dave Cournoyer
  • Chris Henderson
  • Rebecca Isbister
  • Sarah Jackson
  • Grace Lore
  • Karen Mackenzie
  • Kory Mathewson
  • Shayla Stein
  • Monika Viktorova

Presenters, speakers, facilitators from our various events over the past few years:

  • Leela Aheer
  • Kim Armstrong
  • Catrin Berghoff
  • Laurie Blakeman
  • Erica Bullwinkle
  • Julianna Charchun
  • Natalie Crawford-Cox
  • Leila Daoud
  • Michelle Draper
  • Deborah Drever
  • Bev Esslinger
  • Hedy Fry
  • Ryan Hastman
  • Chris Henderson
  • Amanda Henry
  • Lisa Holmes
  • Sue Huff
  • Janis Irwin
  • Debbie Jabbour
  • Michael Janz
  • Segun Kaffo
  • Janet Keeping
  • Catherine Keill
  • Gail Kelly
  • Andrew Knack
  • Kim Krushell
  • Matthew Kupfer
  • Karen Leibovici
  • Karen Lynch
  • Heather MacKenzie
  • Stephanie MacLean
  • Mary Martin
  • Susan May
  • William McBeath
  • Diana McQueen
  • Janelle Morin
  • Rabia Naseer
  • Katherine O’Neill
  • Cathy Palmer
  • Linda Sahli
  • Brad Tennant
  • Linda Trimble
  • Theresa Wade

 

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