The 2011 municipal election was a major disappointment to Ellen Woodsworth. The two-term COPE councillor fell just 90 votes short of the mark, coming 11th in the race for one of 10 spots on Vancouver council. The following year, she lost her home after being evicted by a new owner of the row-house complex she had lived in for more than 30 years.
But these events have not dampened Woodsworth’s enthusiasm for civic engagement. She’s the founder of the nongovernmental organization Women Transforming Cities: Designing Ideal Cities for Women and Girls. It has held a series of monthly café events in different neighbourhoods on such topics as women and work, affordable housing, gender and public transportation, and young women taking charge of their lives.
“Safety is one of the top issues for women—for young women, older women, aboriginal women, and immigrant women,” Woodsworth tells the Georgia Straight by phone from her new home. “Affordable housing is another big one for women.”
The goal of Women Transforming Cities is to ensure that women and girls are involved in the electoral process and that local governments respond to their priorities.
In 2012, Canada ranked 11th on the United Nations’ human-development index of countries. But this country was farther back in 18th place on the UN’s gender-inequality index.
Just under 25 percent of members of Parliament are women. According to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, only 16 percent of mayors and 25 percent of municipal councillors in Canada are female.
“Women in countries in which there is a strong family system or a strong community system find it easier to move into leadership positions than in our system, which is very much based on the nuclear family with very little support for child-rearing or elder care,” Woodsworth says.
She and other Vancouver participants in Women Transforming Cities hope to draw attention to some of the structural barriers facing women at the civic level at a daylong conference next Thursday (May 30) at SFU’s Segal Graduate School of Business.
Speakers include Prabha Khosla, an expert on gender equality in the provision of municipal services, and University of Toronto political scientist Sylvia Bashevkin, who has compared how municipal restructuring has affected women in different cities.
Various sessions will focus on housing rights for women, designing safer cities for women, how young women can become agents of change, social inclusion, and applying a gender and equity lens to environmental sustainability.
The event takes place the day before the start of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ annual convention, which will be held
“The recommendations from each of the panels will come to the plenary, and we’ll make recommendations to the FCM and municipalities,” Woodsworth says. So how is Vancouver faring under the leadership of city manager Penny Ballem, widely considered to be one of Vancouver’s most influential women? Woodsworth gives credit to Ballem for helping to hire a new fire chief who is “addressing the incredible inequity in terms of the number of women hired”.
In addition, Woodsworth says that the city under Ballem’s leadership has hired a female head of the library, Sandra Singh, and appointed Mary Clare Zak as the director of social policy. The former COPE councillor adds that since Ballem became the top bureaucrat, the city has appointed a new head of engineering services, Peter Judd, who is also very supportive of issues of concern to women.
When it comes to recreational services in Vancouver, Woodsworth says, there is still a bias in favour of men. “You can just look at women who are active in sports who can’t find a decent field to play on,” she says. “They can’t find decent hours to play hockey in the rinks. There’s just numerous ways in which you can look at how women are held back in sports because there’s not funding. The park board is starting to put an equity lens on what they do and how they can improve what they do.”
Some of the biggest improvements, in Woodsworth’s opinion, have come in policing. She praises Chief Jim Chu for the creation of Sister Watch, a police initiative to combat violence against women in the Downtown Eastside, as well as for regular meetings VPD members have with women in the neighbourhood.
“It probably has partly to do with Penny’s support and the mayor’s support—and with Jim Chu being someone who is comfortable sitting down talking to people,” Woodsworth states. “He has been proactive in reaching out and trying to do something.”