Building a brighter future for women in politics

- March 8, 2017

Political Science students Lydia Swiatkowski (left) and Sarah Dobson are in Ottawa during International Women's Week for a leadership forum on empowering women in politics. (Matt Reeder photo)
Political Science students Lydia Swiatkowski (left) and Sarah Dobson are in Ottawa during International Women's Week for a leadership forum on empowering women in politics. (Matt Reeder photo)

Dal Political Science students Lydia Swiatkowski and Sarah Dobson would one day like to work in politics, and they'd prefer to do so on their own terms — as women.

Swiatkowski and Dobson are in Ottawa during International Women's Week this week to participate in the Daughters of the Vote leadership forum, a conference aimed at inspiring more young women to enter politics.

Organized by advocacy group Equal Voice, the five-day forum marks the centennial of the first women in Canada obtaining the right to vote. It does so by bringing 338 young women from across the country — one representing each federal riding — to Parliament Hill to meet like-minded individuals and discuss the topics they feel most passionate about.

Shining a light on underepresentation

Dobson and Swiatkowski, along with fellow Dal student Camille Horton-Poole, were invited there to represent three Nova Scotia ridings: Halifax West, West Nova, and Halifax, respectively.  As participants, they’ll have the chance to present their own visions for Canada, hear from former Prime Minister Kim Campbell and Maryam Monsef, Canada’s current Minister of Status of Women, and to take their seats in the House of Commons — a symbolic gesture meant to shine a light on the continued underrepresentation of women in government.

Women make up more than 50 per cent of Canada’s population, yet still represent only 26% of elected Members of Parliament. Indigenous women only got suffrage in 1960. And Campbell, Canada’s only woman prime minister to date, was not elected until 1993 and served for less than a year.

So while the Forum is a celebration of voting rights for some Canadian women, the event is also meant to serve as a reminder that it was only a partial victory and that the country still has a long way to go to overcome the roadblocks for women.

Fourth-year Dobson thinks those hurdles are mostly systemic, a realization she says has become more clear to her now that she’s nearing graduating.

“I’m kind of realizing that none of the higher positions in my field go to women,” she says. “And it’s like, am I only ever going to reach 70% of the top of this field? Can I aspire to be the Prime Minister, the person with the highest office?”

Forging a path for women

Dobson, an honours student and recipient of a scholarship in Women in Defense and Security studies, says she has found herself wondering more and more often if she may need to sacrifice some traits she deems feminine to be successful in politics.  

“Can I show emotion? Can I care about my appearance? Can I say that I want a family and care about things outside of work and not be judged for that?” she wonders. “There’s still big dichotomy in my field in that women who do become successful have to downplay their feminine traits and try to fit in more with men.”

She says she’d like to forge a path where women can still be women in politics, where women can be opinionated and well-spoken and successful and have a family all at the same time.

Swiatkowski, a second-year honours student who once skipped class in high school to go meet former Prime Minister Campbell, thinks many women still struggle to see themselves being in or retaining positions of political leadership.

“We don’t have the same kind of role model that a white man has,” she says. “They’ve been doing this job for hundreds of years, so they just don’t have the same self-doubt.”
As a forum geared specifically towards encouraging more women to get elected into political office, Daughters of the Vote promises to leave Swiatkowski, Dobson, and Horton-Poole with plenty of ideas for keeping the fight of previous generations of women alive.


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