Women in public life

What obstacles do female politicians still face?
Panel discussion I am part of examines this very topic
(This column originally published April 23 for Town Crier.)

The Honourable Dr. Carolyn Bennett asked me to be part of a panel discussion on women in politics on March 27. 
You may know Bennett as the MP for St. Paul’s, but I use her official titles for a reason. One issue that was raised is the fact that media refer to female politicians by first names such as Belinda (Stronach), Kim (Campbell) or Sheila (Copps). And it’s less likely for a printed article to refer to a male politician by his first name only.
Keynote speaker, Sylvia Bashevkin, the principal of U of T’s University College, has written several books on women in politics. She spoke about instances in the past where female candidates have gone door knocking at dinnertime and when they presents their campaign literature, including a photo of their husband and kids, they have been asked who is feeding her family. 
The panel included another local political rep Don Valley West MPP Kathleen Wynne who, as a lesbian, was told she could not win in North Toronto back when she ran as a school trustee. Of course she has proved them wrong and as education minister also won re-election against a formidable challenger in John Tory, the former Ontario PC leader. 
For my part, I spoke to the 70 or so female students from Northern, Rosedale and other midtown high schools about my experience as a journalist writing about politics.Here’s a little of what I shared about the joys and challenges of the job I love.
Recently, I wrote about how the city’s 10 female councillors are mentoring young women on the life of politicians. The council members have told me it’s tough raising money to get into public life in the first place. The long hours mean it takes a toll on family life and the barrage of criticism they face on decisions they make can turn off some women from the profession.
Nonetheless, I was heartened to see how many students at the panel discussion expressed a desire to go into politics or journalism and have already volunteered on political campaigns before their 18th birthdays. These are engaged citizens.
One of the reasons I love reporting is I get to hear people’s personal tales and witness how politics impacts the community. 
The same week of the panel discussion I interviewed an 18-year-old York Mills student Tarah Bleier who has a petition protesting cuts to the hours of her school library. In nearly seven years at the Town Crier, I have interviewed hundreds of women who have started grassroots initiatives such as Not Far From the Tree and Growing Green that plan to plant Toronto’s first urban orchard in a city park this spring. 
I have spoken to beach resident Zahra Dhanani who has faced her own challenges as a Muslim lesbian. She is a human rights lawyer, DJ, volunteer and mediator. 
But not everyone trusts the media in general or a community reporter with their stories, so I mentioned the challenge of getting people to call you back for deadlines on stories. 
As a woman, I also have to be aware of safety when I’m reporting on issues in remote areas of the city such as homeless camps along the Don Valley or a forested area in Leaside where no one else is around. I also interview strangers in their homes, so I am careful about letting colleagues know where I am.  
Most of all I encouraged the young adults to find something they are passionate about and follow that dream because it makes it all worthwhile.

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