Women in leadership led the November 25th Times Colonist front page, “Mostly Female Councils Changing the Face of Politics,” focused on the number of female candidates elected in the CRD as a result of the most recent municipal election. Although many women may be newly elected to local government, we know that they are not new to various leadership roles in their own lives and communities. Women bring unique perspectives to public life and as the TC article suggests, women may also have unique ways of communicating and bringing people together to achieve mutual goals.
“Consensus-building” seems to be a common leadership trait of many women I know, based I believe on their willingness to cooperate, collaborate and negotiate. In my experience, these abilities stem from the way in which many of us, as women, are socialized from childhood — we learn at an early age that reaching out, networking and working together can be more rewarding than working alone. Women are what I describe as fundamentally “relational,” a characteristic that lends itself well to the notion of a “shared leadership” style, a term I use often to acknowledge a preferred approach to being inclusive, empowering and building capacity in individuals and groups.
It was interesting to note that in an earlier Times Colonist article, “The Fortin Files,” about former Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin, he did not seem entirely comfortable being called a “consensus builder,” citing the need for diversity in local government and on council. I agree that diversity found in communities should be reflected in local government, and that voters should elect members who are independent decision-makers and bring different viewpoints to community issues. But consensus building and diversity are not mutually exclusive. Working to find common ground often means embracing difference while also building consensus. I believe that without learning to build consensus among other decision-makers, leaders may not achieve their key goals and priorities, and may find it a real challenge to make informed decisions that succeed to unify their councils, organizations and communities.
Cooperation, collaboration and negotiation to achieve consensus are all abilities and skills that many of us on local councils value. A leader who works to build consensus also builds support for projects and directions that matter to communities and make a difference to the quality of decision-making. While consensus building is not unique to women, it is an approach unique to an egalitarian leadership style, one that reflects an expressed desire for equality and equity. Women generally know well these aspirational goals and for good reason.
While it is gratifying and encouraging to see an increase in women elected to local government across the CRD, there remains a need to mentor women into elected positions. Women still face barriers to full participation, regardless of age and circumstances, and we recognize that the traditional nature of politics and local government is often gender biased in favour of men. We must continue to provide opportunities for women to access our political system and find effective methods of including and electing women to leadership roles, resulting in women and men working together for the benefit of all communities.
I applaud the many individuals and organizations that work to encourage, support and mentor women into leadership roles across the spectrum of our public, civic and private sectors, to ensure that “the face of politics” continues to change. To find out more about one such organization, please visit Young Women Civic Leaders at the Justice Education Society’s website and learn about their two-year project: http://www.justiceeducation.ca/programs/young-women-civic-leaders