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Politics

Canadian women feel less informed about the election — what’s contributing to the problem?

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Morgan DeBroe knows who she’s voting for but when it comes to talking politics, she’s not that eager to speak out.

“I don’t always have the resources or knowledge to back up information or I don’t necessarily feel prepared enough to debate my reasons or answers,” she said.

DeBroe, a 23-year-old university student, is among a number of women wading through politics with uncertainty.

Fewer women than men feel confident in their political know-how, according to a recent Leger survey, commissioned by Canada Powered by Women.

Leger polled 1,535 Canadians between Aug. 16 and Aug. 20 about their decision-making process for voting in the upcoming federal election.

The poll found that only 28 per cent of women feel informed about “big issues” in Canada, like the economy and environment, compared to 46 per cent of men.

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Women were also less likely to trust their own judgment when deciding on where to stand on those issues. In fact, they were more likely to rely on a spouse, partner or family member to keep them informed.

“Women are more reluctant to trust,” said Lucy Miller, lead organizer for Canada Powered by Women, a political group aimed at encouraging women to talk politics this fall.

“But the more they trust, the more they engage and the more they engage, the more they trust.”

There’s no black-and-white answer to why women might be feeling disenfranchised in politics, said Joni Avram, campaign manager with CPW.

Despite caring about issues almost equally with men, women still feel like “outliers” in the greater conversation, said Avram.

She sees it already among her 17-year-old daughter and her friends.

“One of her friends said, ‘I want to be more engaged, but I feel like unless I know everything, I’m going to get shot down for saying something stupid,’” she said.

“She was censoring herself. I think that happens a lot when we’re in an environment that is not necessarily safe for us to speak up.”

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And yet, the discomfort doesn’t mean women aren’t voting. Historically, women are actually more likely to vote than men. Women voted at higher rates than men in nearly all age groups in the 2015 federal election, according to polling information. Women came in at 68 per cent and men at 64 per cent — a similar pattern to the 2011 and 2008 elections.

“So while it seems that women might feel under-engaged, they also feel very politically motivated to say and have their vote count,” said Andrea Gunraj of the Canadian Women’s Foundation.

The “lion’s share” of the issue is a lack of female representation, Gunraj said.

“Women are not feeling themselves reflected in the messaging and in the people who are running.”

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Four of the five official federal party leaders are men. Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green Party, is the only woman vying for Canada’s top job. However, May’s Greens aren’t as front-and-centre as the three male contenders. Her party is in fourth place, according to a recent Ipsos poll.

A record 88 women were elected to Parliament in the 2015 federal election, up from 76 in 2011, but that’s only about a quarter of seats altogether.

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That could change in October.

Gunraj said proper representation can have long-term, positive effects on future voters.

“Many women who are now in political positions can speak to somebody who inspired them because they saw themselves reflected and thought, ‘Hey, I get that’ or ‘Hey, I can do that too.’”

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Politics isn’t the only sphere where women feel underrepresented. Women voters were less likely to believe their voice is properly reflected in the media and only 24 per cent of women said they would initiate political discussions in social situations, compared to 40 per cent of men.

“It’s quite likely that women hold themselves to a higher standard,” said Avram.

“We don’t necessarily think that women are less informed, but feel less informed. They expect more of themselves. They want to know everything before they’re willing to speak up.”

Avram acknowledged that some answers may depend on where a person is in their lives.

They could also be a reflection of how – and where – political discussions take place.

Take DeBroe, for instance.

Despite knowing who she wants to vote for, DeBroe, who is studying to be a teacher, finds herself suppressing her thoughts on politics in some social situations.

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She’s comfortable talking with friends about things that interest her in politics, like education and student loans, but sometimes, she says it feels daunting to speak about politics with people she’s less familiar with.

“It can be an alienating experience,” she said. “Especially if it’s brought up around people I don’t know. Sometimes we will have differing opinions and that isn’t always met with friendliness or compassion.”

In order to understand all viewpoints, DeBroe says she looks to social media for help.

“My friends and I are always open to different views and opinions, so long as they aren’t harmful,” she said.

Social media is an inevitable part of political discussion, but the rhetoric isn’t always inclusive or safe for women, said Miller.

“It can be such a toxic environment. It shifts the focus of conversations to extremes,” she said.

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“When politics are divisive, those loud and extreme voices on the margins get heard and then the majority of the people in the middle get silenced. We’re seeing many women who are silent or bow out of the conversation because of all this noise.”

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Women’s feeling of disenfranchisement could be because about 45 per cent of women don’t believe their vote makes a difference in deciding big issues, according to the Leger survey.

“That broke my heart,” said Amanda Kingsley Malo, the founder of PoliticsNOW, a grassroots organization that works to engage and empower women in politics.

“When you think about the ridings that go a couple hundred votes here or there… Every vote counts in a moment like that.”

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But, as Malo points out, not everyone has the privilege to disengage.

“For some of us, living is political,” she said.

“Some of us have to stay informed, otherwise there’s systematic oppression within political systems that would disenfranchise some women in a moment.”

The struggle to connect women with politics becomes increasingly difficult when you consider that a woman’s experience is shaped by her lived experience, whether she is white or Indigenous or black, etc., Gunraj noted.

“Women are not a monolithic group,” she said.

“Things like racism and classism and ableism — it’s going to be more difficult for some women to see themselves reflected in leadership and feel that they have the right to be asking questions and bringing up conversations.”

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For women to feel more engaged, both Gunraj and Malo agree that issues that disproportionally impact them need to be brought to the debate stage.

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As part of the Leger poll, participants were asked to weigh this question: “What generally happens to men in this country will have something to do with what happens in my life.”

Only 35 per cent of women agreed. About 40 per cent of men agreed with the opposite — that what happens to women in Canada will have an effect on their life.

With little to no emphasis on issues that disproportionately affect women, they’re likely asking themselves why their vote matters, Malo said.

“I’m worried about where my parents are going to end up. I’m worried about the cost of daycare. I’m worried about femicide. If we’re not talking about these issues, women won’t engage because they might feel like the things they care about don’t matter,” she said.

“We have entire debates frame around foreign policy. Why can’t we have entire debates frame around the things that women care about?”

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There hasn’t been an official debate on women’s issues in Canada since 1984, according to Gunraj.

She’s blunt:

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“That’s very telling.”

The Leger survey is accurate plus or minus 2.5 per cent, 19 times out of 20. The results were weighted based on age, gender and location. Respondents were recruited randomly using an online panel.