Gender and the City: parity still eludes us

Apparently there are a record number of candidates running for municipal council this year. For those looking for some alternatives to the status quo, this is good news. Only one candidate is running unopposed, and several incumbents are retiring – so no matter what, we’ll see new faces on council this year. And it’s good for our local democracy to have a lot of people show their interest in serving their community.

In the coming months, we’ll have a chance to look at the ward races in detail. Folks are still launching campaigns, so the field is shifting. I’m reluctant to step in and start analyzing each race at this point.

But as someone who has a keen interest in seeing more women in elected office, I couldn’t resist doing a little calculation. According to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, women make up 13.9 per cent of mayors and 23 per cent of councilors – pretty much on par with other levels of government, and contributing to Canada’s dismal international rating for women’s participation in politics. FCM wants to raise Canada’s average to 30%, and have been running campaign schools and workshops across the country for a few years now. Local councilors Marianne Wilkinson and Jan Harder held a campaign school for women here, which from all reports was well attended.

There are currently 7 women serving on Ottawa’s council – that’s 30%. Above the national average and right at the FCM’s target. One of these women – Kanata’s Peggy Feltmate – is retiring. Unfortunately, no woman has registered to run in her ward, so if we are to maintain (or – dare I dream – improve on) these numbers, at least one new woman needs to be re-elected.

So how is the current race shaping up?

Not so well, I’m afraid.

Of the 86 candidates registered or expected to run*, 14 are women. That’s 16 per cent overall. There are women running in 10 wards – that’s less than half of Ottawa’s 23 wards. In the 6 wards where incumbents are not seeking re-election, only two have female candidates, and in both those races they are the only women running. Three of the six female incumbents face challenges from other women. There’s only one female candidate for mayor (out of 13 candidates so far).

I’m not sure why many of the women running have chosen the uphill battle of challenging incumbents, and why more women have not decided to enter the races which are wide open. But I’m guessing we won’t see a huge shift in the gender makeup of the next council.

If all the female incumbents are re-elected (not to discount the campaigns of their female challengers, but Ottawa does like its incumbents. We’ll assess the challengers’ chances in future posts), we need at least one other women to be elected to maintain 30 per cent. The two women who are trying to replace retiring councilors – Isabel Metcalfe and Oni “The Haitan Sensation” Joseph – probably stand the best chance, but a lot of people are running in those wards, and there are some very strong male candidates to beat.

The numbers are a bit of a disappointment, especially given the various workshops and campaigns to attract new faces to municipal politics. It’s also a little surprising that the excellent work of the City for All Women Initiative has not yielded more women interested in taking the plunge – CAWI does amazing political engagement work with very diverse women. I’ve been to a few of their events and have been so impressed by the strong, articulate and creative women I’ve met there. Why aren’t more of them running for council?

It’s a question we need to start asking ourselves. I suspect it’s going to take more than workshops to encourage more women to put their names on the ballot. It can be quite isolating, being a candidate – especially in the early days, when few people are paying attention to municipal politics and it’s hard to get folks to commit to spending time on your campaign. There are the inevitable sexist comments and attitudes to face. Family obligations, employment… so many things can make women second-guess themselves. It takes money, a good team and a great support network to mount a winning campaign. Anyone who’d like municipal government to reflect Ottawa’s population might consider seeking out a candidate that reflects their values and offering more than just a vote on election day.

The female candidates thus far:

Mayor: Jane Scharf

Ward 1 – Orleans: Jennifer Robitaille

Ward 3 – Barrhaven: Jan Harder (incumbent)

Ward 4 – Kanata North: Marianne Wilkinson (incumbent)

Ward 7 – Bay: Oni Joseph

Ward 8 – College: Lynn Hamilton , Julia Ringma

Ward 10 – Gloucester-Southgate: Diane Deans (incumbent) Lilly Obina

Ward 14 – Somerset: Diane Holmes (incumbent)

Ward 15 – Kitchissippi: Christine LeadmanKatherine Hobbs

Ward 16 – River: Maria McRea (incumbent) Nadia Willard

Ward 17 – Capital: Isabel Metcalfe

*a few incumbents and challengers have announced their intention to run but have not yet filed their papers. I included them in the tally. A recent news report cited 95 candidates, but as they were not yet posted on the website, I couldn’t identify their gender. I’ll do an update on the numbers in a later post.


  1. I wonder if the ward system/lack of parties is responsible for this. In the late 90’s/early part of this century, female councillors and mayors made up almost 50% of those elected in teh Greater Vancouver area (20 councils). These are notable for their at-large electoral systems and parties and slates in larger municipalities (Vancouver, Surrey, Burnaby, Richmond etc.)
    The at-large system decreases incumbency advantage, which would surely help more women get elected. Parties also decrease incumbency and allow for a more even distribution of financial support…
    Something to think about.

  2. I’d be interested to see how the ratio compares as we move “up” from municipal to provincial and eventually to the federal level. I seem to remember a discussion on CBC’s The Current on the subject within the last two years focused upon the federal level, although I cannot recall the date of the broadcast.

  3. Federal is 23 percent at the moment, which is the highest it has been. Provincial hovers in the same range. Lots of info and stats on Equal Voice’s website –

    There is often an assumption that more women are involved at the local level – but this is not the case. We have been stuck at 21-23 per cent in all levels of government for some time

  4. I should add that the local numbers for women elected to federal and provincial office are quite dire – 2 out of 8 MPPs and 0 of 8 MPs from the Ottawa area are women

  5. Vicky – as I posted above, this is not true everywhere in Canada. I just tallied the larger municipalities of Metro Vancouver (excluding the ones less than 1000 people) and came up with a 36% figure. Again, not close to full representation, but beyond tokenism.
    So again, I ask, why is BC different than other jurisdictions, and again, I think that it is due to electoral system.

  6. that’s an interesting question, Chris, and something worth exploring. I suspect you might be right. On the federal scene, some parties perform better than others in running and electing women – because they have made it a priority to recruit women to run in winnable ridings. I would be interested in seeing some analysis on the BC municipal scene – I’ll have to see if anyone has done anything

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