Jennifer Keesmaat is right: It’s time to fix the gender imbalance at Toronto city hall

OPINION: The former chief city planner will likely lose the mayoral election — but her plan to create gender parity in municipal politics is a winner, writes Lauren McKeon
By Lauren McKeon - Published on October 17, 2018
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When Jennifer Keesmaat started as the city’s chief planner, in 2012, she led a team of all-male directors. (Colin Perkel/CP)

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In early October, Jennifer Keesmaat pledged that, if she were elected mayor of Toronto, she’d focus on gender parity. Speaking outside on a windy day at a podium labelled “Women in Leadership,” Keesmaat urged voters to consider the gross imbalance at city hall. She has a point. Of the 35 mayoral candidates running in the upcoming municipal election, only four are women. Women make up just 74 of the 243 city-council candidates. In more than one riding, there are no women running at all.

“After this election, there may be too few elected women in this city to form a gender-equal executive committee,” Keesmaat said to a row of female supporters. “However, we can take concrete steps as a city to build a fairer government for everyone.” For her, that means a few things — key among them, ensuring gender parity on City of Toronto boards, as well as at senior levels of staff.

Keesmaat knows what it’s like to be the solo woman. When she started as the city’s chief planner, in 2012, she led a team of all-male directors. It took her five years to balance that out, she said — but she did it. Such parity, she added, needs to exist right up to the decision-making level on the city’s boards. Hundreds of board seats will come open over the next council’s term, and if she wins, Keesmaat says she’ll appoint more women. It’s something the corporate sector has done, she stressed, to its great benefit.

It may seem strange to think of the cigar-chomping corporate sector as more equality-forward than our civic institutions — but it can be. A 2017 McKinsey report showed that gender representation on boards has been steadily increasing among the top 25 performing companies in the United States (on the whole, however, women hold only 19 per cent of board positions in the U.S.).  A lot of this forward movement has been motivated not by a do-the-right-thing belief in gender equality, but by the promise of dollar signs. As it turns out, gender parity at all levels of a company — and the economy — can make for better business.

Recently, Credit Suisse ran data for 3,000 companies and determined “that the higher the percentage of women in top management, the greater the excess returns for shareholders.” Companies with women on their boards, it found, also fare better during economic recessions. Another 2017 McKinsey report argued that if Canada took steps to address gender parity, it would be “equivalent to adding a new financial-services sector to the economy.”               

If. Let’s not forget the very real caveats. That same report included some depressing findings — namely, that only 15 per cent of CEOs in Canada are women. And, even more dismally, we’ve stalled on closing gender gaps. “Data on many indicators has shown little improvement,” reads the report. “At current rates, gender gaps could take 30 to 180 years to close.” That’s a huge range — parity could be something I see in my lifetime, or it could happen generations into the future. I’m not sure which is more likely.                                             

Not everyone, however, believes parity will boost the economy. In 2017, Katherine Klein, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s business school, published a summary of academic research that suggests having gender parity on a company board makes no financial difference at all. But that doesn’t mean companies shouldn’t do it, she writes: “Women should be appointed to boards for reasons of gender equality, but not because gender diversity on boards leads to improvements in company performance.”

Klein is not wrong: Why should we have to prove that women are extra financially valuable for them to earn a seat at the table? Equality — and destroying old ideas about who should be in which rooms — should be motivation enough.

In selling her platform, Keesmaat made reference to a comment that John Tory made back in 2014, when he offered women advice on how to advance their careers. “I’ll say to people right now: young women, learn how to play golf,” he told reporters. “You will find it is immensely advantageous to your career.” His advice exposed a common expectation: that women must adjust their behaviour to compete according to what are ultimately men’s rules. I can’t say whether Keesmaat would make a better mayor than Tory, but her strategy — “I’ll hire them” — is a winner.

Lauren McKeon is the digital editor of The Walrus. She's the author of F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism, published by Goose Lane Editions.

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