This past Monday, Samara and Equal Voice hosted a panel discussion on women’s experiences in political life. The event was part of Samara’s national book tour for the recently released Tragedy in the Commons by Alison Loat and Michael MacMillian. The book draws on eighty exit interviews with former parliamentarians from all parties and parts of the country, offering a behind the scenes look at life on the Hill.
Conservative MP Lisa Raitt opened the evening with some of her views on women’s participation in politics. She stressed the importance of grass roots political involvement and talked about her positive experiences as a mother on the Hill.
The focus of the evening was a discussion panel with former MP Marlene Catterall (Lib), current MPs Jinny Sims (NDP) and Elizabeth May (GRN), and Alison Loat. Other MPs in attendance include Niki Ashton (NDP), Brent Rathgeber (IND), and Craig Scott (NDP).
Here are some highlights of the topics covered:
Co-Author Alison Loat noted that during her interviews, technology didn’t come up as much as she thought it would, most likely because the MPs she interviewed didn’t “grow up digital.”
Elizabeth May expressed her view that Twitter has improved access for public participation in politics. She did note, however, that social media allows anonymity, which can make it easy for people to make misogynistic comments. As Michelle Rempel (CPC) noted at a BPW Ottawa event I attended back in December, sexism is a serious problem for female MPs on social media.
Hostility in the House: Sexism and Heckling
The discussion about the culture of Parliament was a topic covered by almost all panel members. Elizabeth May noted that Parliament is the only work environment where bullying is an accepted behaviour. While she hasn’t experienced deliberate, overt sexism, she has witnessed the nastiness of Parliament worsen over the last decade. Jinny Sims has also never experienced sexism directly, but she has noticed that younger female NDP members are more likely to be heckled in the house. According to Sims, this is something the Twitter community has also noticed. Interestingly, this is not the first time I have heard about this. Nycole Turmel also discussed this disturbing trend at a talk for BPW Ottawa on workplace bullying and harassment back in March 2013.
Panelist Marlene Catterall doesn’t recall much heckling directed at women during her time as an MP (1988-2005). Instead, she found the media to be more sexist than the other MPs. She also remembers walking into committee rooms and having witnesses assume she was a clerk or assistant.
Encouraging Women to Participate
All MPs stressed that their jobs are very rewarding, and they would like to see more women in office. Unfortunately, a perceived negative atmosphere can be a turn-off for women considering entering politics. Restoring cooperation in the house and making it a less hostile environment might encourage more women to participate.
The importance of groups like Equal Voice was echoed in comments made by Catterall. When asked when as an MP she felt most like a team player, she replied during Women’s Caucus. She described it as a safe environment where she could say what she felt, not just what she thought. Equal Voice also serves as a safe place, where women (and men) can work as a team to help women from all backgrounds and political parties run for office.