Rob Ford's "Woman Problem" Not His Alone
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Rob Ford’s “Woman Problem” Not His Alone

City Council's Protégée Program seeks to bring fresh—and female—faces into local politics.

City council: still mostly men.

“Does Rob Ford have a woman problem?” asked the Globe and Mail recently. A bold question, but the problem of female representation in politics reaches far beyond the mayor. In Toronto, 15 of the 44 councillors—or 34 per cent—are women, and while that sounds bad, it’s a heck of a lot better than the paltry 24.8 per cent elected to federal parliament.

Thankfully, a mentorship program may help correct the current sausage-fest that is Toronto politics.

The Toronto Regional Champion Campaign was launched in 2008; 26 young women were mentored by female councillors as part of an initiative by Councillor Pam McConnell (Ward 28, Toronto Centre-Rosedale). McConnell is chair of a Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ committee dedicated to upping the female quotient in municipal politics. The idea seems to have legs: the program just received funding from the feds’ Status of Women Canada and is set to hit four other communities including Edmonton and Wainfleet, Ontario.

In Toronto, the program just launched its third Protégée Program, with all 15 female city councillors participating. Each councillor is mentoring two young women for a period of 12 months. The women are typically 18 to 26 years of age, are either currently enrolled in or freshly out of university, and hail from a variety of communities and backgrounds–a nice touch, given that council is overwhelmingly Caucasian.

“When I came onto council there were very few women, period; now we’re looking at trying to get a more representative face of Toronto in general,” said McConnell. “It will only start when we give young women the tools, the experience, and, most importantly, the connections to put their names in.”

It’s McConnell’s hope that her sister councillors’ passion for politics will translate, and that these young women won’t face the same barriers to entry she did.

Councillor Pam McConnell at a council meeting last September.

Not only are female politicians forced to prove themselves as leaders over a longer period of time, says McConnell of those difficulties, but women also suffer in the combative environment that is politics: their consensus-building skills are undervalued, and they have a harder time fundraising. Women, she finds, shy away from the networking game, while young men thrive on it, and when it comes time to raise dough, the women suffer. McConnell hopes that the Protégée participants will not only gain confidence through the program, but will also build up a handy network of empowered contacts.

Mentee Leona Teixeira, a 23-year-old who hails from Avenue and Lawrence, currently works for MaRS helping online start-ups find their feet in Toronto. She was non-committal about a future career in politics but, having interned with GO Transit, is passionate about how proper transit infrastructure can help build communities.

Not surprisingly, she’s been paired with Councillor and TTC Chair Karen Stintz, aka the new “Rebel Mayor.”

As for Rob Ford’s “woman problem,” McConnell insisted that all councillors, male and female, are on board with the mentorship program. “I think we need to remember that every male member of council has a daughter, or a sister, or a granddaughter, and they know that those young women have things to contribute.”

A lovely sentiment, though it’s hard to forget that Ford is struggling to keep the few women he does have as members of his Executive Committee, which works to implement his agenda at City Hall. In this administration, fresh, young female faces on council are more necessary than ever.