Executive Remains Elusive for Council's Women
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Executive Remains Elusive for Council’s Women

Women were elected in record numbers in 2010, but you wouldn't know it by looking at council's most influential committee.

Councillors Michelle Berardinetti (left) and Jaye Robinson were the only two women on the city's executive committee before Berardinetti's recent departure. Photo by Desmond Cole.

In the 2010 election 15 women were elected to city council, out of 45 members in total. But since Rob Ford took office, only two have served on the influential, 13-member executive committee.

This week, council had a chance to at least maintain the status quo: they were debating the mid-term shuffle of committee appointments, and there was a vacancy since Berardinetti had decided to leave the committee. Deputy mayor Doug Holyday (Ward 3, Etobicoke Centre) recommended councillor Frank Di Giorgio (Ward 12, York South-Weston) to fill the spot, and Janet Davis (Ward 31, Beaches-East York) rose to ask about the lack of women on the committee, specifically in light of the significant number of women serving on council.

Holyday replied that gender was “not the issue,” adding that “we need to get the best qualified people we can possibly get here. I would love to have more women on the executive—I think certainly there’s a benefit to that. But we have to have people on the executive who are going to follow the mayor’s agenda. Unfortunately we weren’t able to find people to make that commitment.”

Councillor Jaye Robinson (Ward 25, Don Valley West) is the only woman remaining on executive, which sets the municipal government’s strategic priorities and includes the chairs of the other major council committees. Fewer than three weeks ago, Councillor Michelle Berardinetti (Ward 35, Scarborough Southwest) made good on a vow to leave the committee. Berardinetti and Robinson had both emphasized a lack of consensus-building and strategic planning over general opposition to the mayor’s agenda, and said they would leave if the issues persisted. Robinson, who decided to renew her appointment and recently became chair of the Community Recreation and Development Committee, told us in an interview that Berardinetti’s departure “firmed up my decision to stay on.”

“I felt that we need diversity on executive, as we do on council,” said Robinson. “I was disappointed Councillor Berardinetti decided to go… She had her reasons and I respect that.” The North York–area councillor noted that women who live in her ward tend to emphasize pedestrian safety, greenspace, and public health issues. “We need moms involved, women involved… we need that perspective at the table,” she said. Citing “different challenges within our neighbourhoods,” Robinson added that no woman in office can fully represent the diverse range of women’s concerns.

Berardinetti, who also spoke with us this week at council, rejected the notion that women ought to be selected to executive merely because of their gender. “I’m not at the table because I’m a woman—it has to be based on your qualifications.” At the same time, she emphasized that “without a doubt, there are gender perspectives at the table.” Berardinetti cited examples of women councillors as “consensus builders,” including councillor Ana Bailao (Ward 18, Davenport), who recently chaired an affordable housing working group that successfully convinced the Ford administration to scale back an initial plan to sell over 600 Toronto Community Housing properties. Data assembled by civic activist Dave Meslin also suggests more collaborative voting tendencies by council’s women on issues debated in the current term of council.

Councillor Berardinetti highlighted efforts by Robinson and herself to mitigate cuts the Ford administration proposed during the 2012 budget process. She applauded a motion on Tuesday to replace outgoing executive committee member Giorgio Mammoliti (Ward 7, York West), who has voted in line with mayor Ford on major issues, with Pam McConnell (Ward 28, Toronto Centre-Rosedale), who has regularly criticized the mayor’s agenda. “It’s fine if [McConnell] is at the table,” Berardinetti said, and described her colleague as “obviously qualified.” She also suggested it’s futile to exclude dissenting views from executive committee, since executive decisions “are going to be assessed and reviewed on the floor of council anyway.”

Holyday told us in an interview that it was “underhanded for [Councillor Davis] to try to portray that as a feminist thing… it certainly wasn’t.” Holyday insisted that McConnell would merely “try to gum up the works from inside” if she was appointed to executive. He defended the mayor’s appointments, saying, “We did try to put a couple [of women] on, we put a couple of rather inexperienced ones on, really. They were rookie councillors who did support our agenda.”

Holyday described Berardinetti’s resignation as “unfortunate.” When we asked if the mayor’s agenda or tactics might be alienating women on council, he replied, “I don’t think there’s anything that we’re putting forward that’s detrimental to women in any way, shape, or form. That would be a foolish position to take for any mayor or executive group.”

Prabha Khosla, a representative of the Toronto Women’s City Alliance, told us in an interview that women are uniquely affected by the provision of City services. “For example, 64 per cent of the ridership of the TTC is female,” Khosla said. Given that women are more likely to earn less money and therefore rely on public transit, “having access to a frequent, accessible service has more meaning for us.” Khosla also cited attitudes displayed in public council deliberations that may deter women from speaking up. “A lot of the behaviour is sexist and abusive,” she said.” If you’re going to be yelled at or told you’re not qualified to speak, that’s not an encouraging sign.”

During an executive committee meeting last year at which hundreds of residents gave deputations in response to Mayor Ford’s core service review, Holyday interrupted then TWCA representative Jennifer Arango (who now works in Ward 9 Councillor Maria Augimeri’s office) after she criticized the committee’s lack of female representation. Holyday, who was not chairing the meeting at the time, demanded loudly, “you’re here to tell us how we’re supposed to be made up?” After her deputation, when Arango was asked what might happen if women’s voices were excluded from the executive, she shot back, “Well, I think you’ll have more men yelling at deputants while they’re trying to make their point.”

CORRECTION: November 30, 2012, 3:45 PM This post originally identified Maria Augimeri as a Ward 8 councillor. In fact, she represents Ward 9. Also, this post misidentified a meeting at which Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday had an exchange with a TWCA representative named Jannifer Arango. It was an executive committee meeting, not a budget committee meeting.