While more and more women are entering politics, they still face significant challenges, according to two high-profile Nova Scotian politicians.
Halifax MP Megan Leslie was elected just more than a year and a half ago. The 36-year-old says she still experiences sexism, albeit in subtle forms, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
“I can’t tell you how often people within the parliamentary precinct or in that work environment will say, ‘Oh, so who do you work for?’ as, of course, I must be a secretary,” Leslie said yesterday over coffee in Halifax. “When I got there, no one patted me on the ass or anything. I think we’re beyond that ... but I am treated differently.”
As a female politician younger than 40, Leslie is very much in the minority among MPs on the Hill. But she thinks while women are still underrepresented in the House of Commons, numbers aren’t the only consideration. As Green party Leader Elizabeth May put it to her, she’d rather have 308 male feminists than 308 female Thatcherites.
“It’s not just about women for the sake of women, or symbolism for the sake of symbolism,” Leslie said. “But there is something to be said about that. Because then girls will think ‘I could do that, that is something I could do. It’s within the realm of the possible.’”
Bedford-Birch Grove MLA Kelly Regan agrees women still face discrimination in the public sphere. In fact, she spoke to Leslie in Ottawa after Leslie placed third in the “Sexiest Female MP” category by The Hill Times.
“She spoke to me (about) just how mortifying and trivial it was,” said Regan, a Liberal MLA elected to the Nova Scotia legislature last June. “Occasionally, some people will make reference to (the) looks or whatever of a woman, which I don’t think they’d be talking about a guy that way. That’s annoying.”
Regan doesn’t believe female politicians are so different from their male colleagues.
“In some cases I would say we’re less partisan, but I know some very partisan women,” she said. “I’d rather have a conversation with somebody than go after them in the house. Nonetheless, that is the system we have and I’m prepared to do that when necessary.”
For Leslie, it’s not so much a matter of addressing specific issues or policies that affect women, but understanding that all issues and policies affect women.
“I would say the most important issue is to look at all issues through a gender lens,” she said. “How are women excluded from this policy, how can women be included by this policy, how can we look at the world critically through a gender lens?
“That requires a shift in how we do things.”
Women in government
Halifax regional council boasts a higher percentage of female representatives than the provincial and federal governments — nine out of 24, or 37 per cent. A record number of women, 12, took office in the 2009 Nova Scotia election, but still only make up 23 per cent of the 52-seat legislature. Federally, the ratio is slightly worse — out of 308 representatives in the House of Commons, 69, or 22 per cent, are women.
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