In the 2008 municipal election there is just one female in the running for Whistler council out of a field of 18 candidates, compared to the four women out of 17 candidates that ran in the 2005 election. That’s the smallest number of female candidates in decades, since council was just five members.
As well, former councillor Kristi Wells is the only female running for the position of mayor, out of a slate of five candidates. Last time she ran she was one of seven candidates vying for the job.
It begs the question: Why are so few women participating this year?
There were three women on council from 1996 to 2005, and two women from 1993 to 1996. The last time Whistler had just one female councillor, before the 2005-2008 term, was 1990 to 1993, but previous councils had either one or two females serving as far back as 1984.
With only one female candidate in the 2008 municipal election, Whistler faces the possibility of an all-male council through to the next election in 2011.
Cathy Goddard, chair of Women of Whistler, says it’s a concern for her organization.
“Everyone is a little disappointed, I think,” she said. “We are a networking group for local businesswomen, bright entrepreneurial women, and I would think that these are the type of people who would have aspirations to contribute to Whistler, politically or otherwise.
“Having said that, I think it’s a real challenge for women here to run. What I’ve heard, and it’s an ongoing problem with just one woman on the last council, is that it’s hard to attract self-employed businesswomen that are juggling their businesses or managerial positions, with families and the commitments of council. The fact that it’s become something of a thankless job also doesn’t help.”
Goddard also pointed to ongoing issues like the lack of daycare for working moms, as well as general staff shortages in town that are forcing female managers and small business owners to devote more time to their careers and businesses. Spare time, said Goddard, just isn’t available to many women who might otherwise considering serving a term on council.
The possibility that the next council will have no female representation is hard to imagine, Goddard says.
“It’s a scary thought. It goes back to the whole men are from Mars and women are from Venus thing. I think women do have different perspectives — not better or worse but different — and it’s good to have candidates that represent different needs and different issues. It’s really frightening that we may not have a woman on council.”
Goddard also noted that some of the issues that prevent local women from running for council, like daycare and employee housing, are the same issues that need female representation on council. While Women of Whistler regularly invites female politicians to speak at meetings, she says that more can be done to inspire other women to enter politics.
The only woman of the 18 candidates running this year is Pina Belperio. While she is well known in town as an advocate and activist and has many reasons to run, it was the lack of female participation that pushed her over the edge.
“I was debating about running, almost to the last minute, and when I saw the lack of women on the list it really solidified my decision,” she said.
“I think it’s important to have diversity on council. I’m not saying that I’m running just because I’m a woman, but I might see things differently on issues like daycare, health care, education. Women tend to volunteer more as well, and it’s important to have that viewpoint represented in discussions and at the all-candidates meetings.
“I’d like to see a council where it’s half and half.”
Belperio attended a one-day women’s campaign school last year that was organized by the Canadian Women Voters Congress. There she was shocked to learn that women make up 52 per cent of the population but hold just 21 per cent of elected municipal offices.
“It was in the Vancouver Sun that Canada ranks behind Iraq for women elected, which is just shocking,” she said.
As to why participation is low, Belperio repeated many of the reasons suggested by Goddard, and added that there’s a lack of female role models in politics in general.
The Federation of Canadian Municipalities has a Women In Government task force to increase the participation of women in local politics. Its modest goal is to have 30 per cent participation by 2026.
Women of Whistler is inviting all of the candidates to take part in their next meeting on Oct. 30, which will include presentations on the coming winter from Tourism Whistler, the Chamber of Commerce and Whistler-Blackcomb. There won’t be a formal opportunity for candidates to speak, but the meeting includes an opportunity to socialize and network with members. To register, call 932-5922, ext. 26.