Women still face misogynistic culture in politics

Calgary MP Michelle Rempel announced Friday the government is investing in the Innovative Apparel Program at Olds College.

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel knows it would not be easy to become leader of her party.

In a string of tweets late Wednesday, Rempel outlined multiple reasons why people would tell her not to run to replace Stephen Harper, who stepped down after the Tories were swept out of office on election night.

“All your DMs (direct messages) telling me to do it aren’t helping. I’m a 35-year-old chick. We’re not supposed to do these sorts of things, you know?” she tweeted.

Many people tweeted positive comments at the Calgary Nose Hill MP, but sprinkled among the good were some asking her if she was drunk and one telling her to stop throwing a tantrum.

She said people in her party would question her experience, say she tweets too much and that she is bossy.

“Want to talk about women in leadership? Those are the things that come up,” she wrote.

It is no secret that being a woman on the Hill is not always easy. It has been described as a “testosterone palace” by one Conservative senator, while Green Party Leader Elizabeth May has said the culture around politics is “men can get away with abuse of power. It’s endemic in politics. It shouldn’t be that way.”

But is it possible the working environment for women on Parliament Hill is about to change?

Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau has promised to ensure 50 per cent of his cabinet is made up of women and that is a great first step, equality advocates say.

“(Trudeau) recognizes the kind of talent and expertise that women are bringing to the table,” Nancy Peckford of Equal Voice told Yahoo Canada News on Friday.

Peckford said it would even be better if. when Trudeau names his cabinet on Nov. 4, some of those female MPs are given non-traditional portfolios, like agriculture or finance.

“We think it will inspire future generations of women,” she said.

Newly-elected MP Bardish Chagger calls her leader’s plan “exciting.”

“We need to empower women,” the Waterloo, Ont., MP said Friday. “He recognizes the value of women in politics.”

She said she’s not concerned about the potential sexism she may face.

“I’m going in there to represent my constituency, and nobody is going to stop me,” Chagger said.

Sexism on the Hill

It remains to be seen whether Trudeau’s plan will be enough to help stop sexism on the Hill, but Peckford noted the soon-to-be prime minister seems to be keenly aware of women’s issues.

Last November, Trudeau kicked two male Liberals out of caucus after allegations they sexually harassed two female NDP MPs. Both Massimo Pacetti and Scott Andrews have denied the allegations. Pacetti did not seek reelection, while Andrews, who ran as an independent, lost his seat to a Liberal.

After the revelations of alleged sexual harassment, then NDP deputy leader Megan Leslie wrote a blog post where she said on her very first day on the Hill, a male colleague told her she had a “fine” body.

“In the years since my election, I’ve had many opportunities to speak about the everyday, almost relaxed sexism that darkens the Hill. But sometimes I don’t want to speak out. Because invariably, like this week, I hear things like, ‘does this mean I can’t flirt with you anymore?’ And because sometimes I’d like to talk about other issues where I have expertise, like poverty or environment,” she wrote.

The harassment claims, she said, “shone a light on a workplace that is stuck in another era when it comes to gender equality.”

Rempel has also previously spoken out about sexism on the Hill, including defending rival Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland in 2014 after she was heckled by many male MPs, and then a reporter for the Vancouver Observer told Freeland to use her “big girl” voice. While heckling happens to everyone, Rempel said at the time the types of words used towards female MPs belittle and undermine them.

Freeland was unavailable for an interview and Rempel did not respond to an interview request from Yahoo Canada News.

But the misogynistic culture in politics does not just exist on the Hill. Women in office across the country are regularly bombarded with sexist online comments and, in some cases, serious threats of violence.

Earlier this month, someone posted on Facebook about how a “lone gunman” could easily take over the provincial government in Alberta. The veiled threat against Premier Rachel Notley, as well as crude comments about her anatomy and calling her a bitch and the c-word, are something police are keeping tabs on, the RCMP have said.

Oshawa, Ont., city councillor Amy England, 34, has also been bullied online. She was targeted after she had a makeover on a reality TV show and then slammed by critics for posting a photo of herself breastfeeding her baby during a council meeting. In that case, someone even reported her to the Children’s Aid Society.

“I think that woke a lot of people up to the underbelly of what women face in politics,” England said in an interview Friday.

While knocking on doors during the 2014 municipal election, England said she still got questions like, “Who is watching your kid?” and “How can you spend so much time away from your family?” but the personal attacks have levelled off.

“This term it seems to be a little bit better. I have purple hair now, and nobody has really said boo,” she said, but added she’s always bracing for the personal attacks.

Objectification of Trudeau

Trudeau himself got a taste of what many women face on a regular basis this week when the focus by international media wasn’t on his policies, but instead his looks. News articles about his historic win in the election were accompanied by photos of a topless Trudeau, images used to promote a charity boxing match in 2012, and descriptions of his hair and good looks.

The objectification of Trudeau was something Peckford admits surprised her.

“I didn’t think there would be that kind of attention around a very superficial aspect,” she said. Trudeau won “on a smart campaign and a desire for change.”

Part of that change will hopefully be seeing women take on more important and visible roles in government, she said.

Peckford said 88 women were elected on Monday, making up 26 per cent of government, relatively unchanged from the previous government. But even a little growth and a change in attitude is a good place to start.

“We expect women will be very visible in this government,” she said. “That can only be a good thing.”