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Why Politics Is Too Important to Leave to the Men

More women in politics changes not only what is done but how. What is discussed changes; more time on health, child care, and environmental concerns; and more consensus-driven win-win approaches replace the testosterone-driven triumphalism of politics as usual.

I've often heard it said that, the time has come for many of us when politics has become too important to leave to the men only.

I agree, but not just to be fair to the 52 per cent of the population who are women. Nor because as humans we began with a virtually egalitarian culture of hunters and gatherers. I just happen to believe that we would get better public policy if more women are at the table where decisions are taken.

The founders of Women's College Hospital in Toronto believed that women physicians behaved differently than men and they did. Women's College with female leadership and professionals led the way to the future of health and health care: the patient as partner; multidisciplinary, rather than doctor-dominated care; the hospital connected to the community; a focus on the social determinants of health.

The 'feminist' approach of 'flattened structure' and inclusive decision-making evolved to an approach now taught in MBA classes... the CEO on the shop floor works! As Nellie Cournoyea, the first woman Premier of Northwest Territories, said, "Paternalism has been a total failure."

In the lobby of Women's College Hospital stands the beautiful Frances Gage statue "Woman." On the base of the statue is engraved the motto -- Non quo, sed quo modo -- it's not only what we do, but how.

Research shows that having more women in politics changes not only what is done but how. What is discussed changes; more time on health, child care, and environmental concerns. How issues are discussed also changes. More consensus-driven win-win approaches replace the 'gotcha,' 'winners and losers,' testosterone-driven triumphalism of politics as usual.

But it is also clear that women (and the great men!) also have a different motivation for running for office -- the why. Every year at my annual 'Women in Politics' day in St. Paul's, the young women hear stories of women who have run for office as a second career, because they have seen things that need to be changed.

Elinor Caplan began by fighting for a cross-walk at her children`s school. Marilyn Churley fought against lead in the soil. Kathleen Wynne fought for smaller classes and against the megacity. These successful women determined to make a difference stand in stark contrast to those (unfortunately mostly men) who were all too eager to suit up in their team jersey and run with no other purpose than to repeat their party's talking points verbatim.

We need our elected representatives to be prepared to fight for better public policy based upon evidence instead of ideology -- the public good. As Peter Newman has said, "Politics in Canada is making the necessary possible." Women come to politics to fight for what they believe is necessary.

Jane Jacobs said that "good public policy is developed when the policy-makers can keep in their mind's eye the people affected." I was astounded when I came to Parliament that so many of the issues being debated were those that my patients had faced -- unfairness in the Divorce Act, difficulty getting a small business loan, poverty, domestic violence, smog days and asthma, discrimination, and affordable housing.

I was an 'accidental tourist' in politics. I found myself fighting for Women's College Hospital against a shot-gun merger. I had no idea that what we were doing was politics. I was taught by the best -- Marilou McPhedran, Mary Eberts, and the legendary Doris Anderson. They'd fought for equality in the Charter and now were leading the fight to protect the women's health approach to health and health care.

In Unfinished Revolution Doris Anderson made an anguished plea: "What women want is so simple and just. How can anything so sensible take so long to accomplish?" In Rebel Daughter she asked "Isn't it time that women stopped holding up half the sky and began making at least half the decisions right down here on earth?"

Today we are celebrating with Equal Voice the fact that 25 per cent of the MPs in the 41st Parliament are women. In 1993, there was excitement that finally 20 per cent of Members of Parliament were women.

I remember in 1997 attending an event that dissected that win: reducing the Progressive Conservatives to two seats had meant that Liberal candidates won in historically 'unwinnable' ridings. We were warned then that there were 'structural barriers' to getting more women elected. Changing our electoral system and the nomination process were identified as key to getting more women elected. Almost 20 years later and we are supposed to be excited that we have broken through to 25 per cent women once again!

We cannot ignore that fact that, like 1993, too many of our exciting new women MPs are there because they won in ridings that would have been considered 'unwinnable' at the time of their nomination. Women are still being used as 'cannon fodder' in ridings the men don't want to run in.

I will always remember how in the riding of St. John's South-Mount Pearl, Newfoundland, Siobhan Coady ran formidable but not yet winnable campaigns in 2004 and 2006, but as soon as Danny Williams made his 'Anyone But Conservative' declaration and Loyala Hearn decided not to run again, a male candidate immediately decided to contest Siobhan for the nomination. Thankfully she won by 70 votes and then went on to win the seat in the 2008 election.

Structural barriers remain to getting more women elected. When I went to medical school women were 20 per cent of the class. Now women are over 50 per cent of medical students. At 25 per cent women, it is clear that Parliament is still not a meritocracy.

We still need to change the electoral system and the nomination processes. I love the new Equal Voice refrain -- Be Her or Support Her. Even women who cannot be persuaded to run for office can choose to support a woman who would benefit from her experience in policy, fundraising, marketing, organization or coordinating volunteers.

In The Female Brain, Louann Brizendine states, "Outstanding verbal ability, the ability to connect deeply in friendship, a near psychic capacity to read faces and tone of voice for emotions and states of mind. The ability to defuse conflict. All this is hardwired into the brains of women."

Seems to me that we could use a lot more of all of the above in the Parliament of Canada.

She goes on to say, "Women have a biological imperative for insisting on a new social contract which takes their needs into account." There is no question that they are many ways to 'insist' on change -- NGOs, professional organizations, media. But there is also no question that the time has come that politics is too important to leave to the men!

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