Women are under-represented in RM races

·3 min read

It's been almost two decades since Carmen Sterling first took her seat at council in the RM of Weyburn.

As reeve, she's seen ups and downs, but never doubted that a government, regardless of size, should reflect its constituents, she says.

She also acknowledges that goal can be far off. Sterling, who is vice-president of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities (SARM), is one of relatively few women holding small government office in the province.

Out of 942 rural municipality candidates in this year's elections, only 82 are women, according to candidate lists posted on the SARM website and shared over email. This year, 192 of the province's 296 rural municipalities are holding elections.

In 2019, six per cent of rural municipality councillors were women.

SARM President Ray Orb acknowledged the gender disparity, but said more women are seeking office and becoming reeves. He noted SARM is working to support women joining rural councils.

Orb said women bring new perspectives into RM council chambers and noted many work as administrators in rural municipalities. He hopes that will spill over to representation as elected officials, he said.

Sterling said it's "unfortunate" but necessary to point out the disparity. She has encouraged friends and other women to run, but concerns like online harassment have been barriers, she said.

"I think it's time for us in the general public to say that kind of behaviour or that kind of targeting of an individual isn't acceptable, whether it's a man or a woman," she said.

Lindsay Brumwell, the Saskatchewan chair of advocacy organization Equal Voice, called on municipalities to oppose negative campaigning, especially online harassment.

"Set a clear precedent: This is not going to happen in our RM. We want a healthy, positive election. May the best candidate come forward and run," Brumwell said.

She echoed Sterling, saying issues like scheduling and balancing other obligations can usually be solved with conversations clarifying concerns.

Brumwell suggested changing campaign finance rules could similarly create a more level playing field for women. She said that's because finding money for signs and ads is often a barrier for people considering running for office.

Other steps could include collecting more data and tracking the disparity. A lack of transparency on council gender breakdowns can mean "it's easy to ignore a problem, if you can't see it," she said.

Brumwell also encourages men holding office to ask women to run, in addition to supporting them while campaigning and mentoring them. In some cases, women may have to be asked five times before pursuing office, she said.

RM of Nipawin Reeve Dona Hoppe, who was elected about two years ago, said she didn't seriously consider running the first time she was asked. She said there should be more conversation about the gender disparity in rural councils.

Seeing more women become involved will encourage more to step forward, she said, adding that she's passionate about her role and glad she accepted the invitation to run when she was asked again.

"I said, 'If I don't, then I'm going to regret it.' "

Nick Pearce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The StarPhoenix