The change we need to bring more women to the council and board tables

Of the more than 100 people who are registered to run in this year’s municipal election campaign, approximately 20 per cent are women.

Although that’s a distressingly small proportion, it’s actually higher than the share of women around the city council table today; of the 24 current members of council, only four are female. Sadly, although there are some talented and qualified women who may get elected this fall, the gender balance in local politics appears unlikely to change significantly.

The municipal election is yet another example of a chronic problem in our society: women still aren’t finding their way into leadership roles in politics, business, and elsewhere. This isn’t because women don’t want to lead. And it’s not because most people don’t want to let them. The vast majority of people want to see more women in positions of leadership.

So why isn’t it more prevalent?

The answer is, in part, that while our aspiration to see more women in leadership roles may have changed, the environment hasn’t. Politics and business are still milieus that can often provide advantages to men and disadvantages to women who strive to lead. If we truly want more women to lead, we shouldn’t just encourage them to step forward; we should change the dynamics that make it difficult for them to do so.

Many challenges in society are boiled down to a function of personal choice. When we strive to solve issues like addiction and obesity, for example, we tend to favour education over broader, systemic changes. As a result, we often overlook the extent to which there are broader factors at play.

To encourage and inspire women to run and lead in business, we need to take a hard look at what’s holding them back. As a young entrepreneur with two children, it was critical that my partner play at least a 50-50 role in raising our children. There was never a mention of ‘dad babysitting’; he was co-parenting and providing the stability for our kids so that I could pursue business-related goals. 

This speaks to the need for women to have more support in raising their kids, either at home or through subsidized daycare so that they don’t feel that they have to make a choice between motherhood and leadership. We also need to break down the barriers and pressure that men face in supporting their partners and being active parents; it’s ok to take paternity leave or take your turn at home with a sick child. The perception that this is a female-only role hurts men just as much as it does women. 

We also need to change the commonly held falsehood that we can do it all, at the same time. This is simply a myth and one that intimidates many – both male and female – from entering into public life or business. While I love running a business, I am also a present and engaged mother and oftentimes this means taking a day off to care for a sick child, and sometimes it means asking my husband or caregiver to look after them so that I can run my business. It’s all give and take, and nothing is black and white. 

We need to break down the barriers holding women back from public life and business, one action at a time. Leading by example, asking for help, and side-stepping hurtful stereotypes are all part of this. With some loud voices demanding and demonstrating change, I think we can all do our part in getting more women around the board and council tables – strong voices we surely need there.

As President and Founder of Syntax Strategic, Jennifer is a leader in the strategic communications sector. She was named one of the ‘Top 25 People in the Capital’ by Ottawa Life Magazine, was also a finalist for Ottawa’s ‘Female Entrepreneur of the Year,’ and is a Forty Under 40 recipient. Jennifer has worked with several clients in a number of sectors, including petroleum, automotive, nuclear, pharmaceutical, technology and Aboriginal affairs.

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