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Life Report shows glaring lack of female voices on Canadian city councils

Consider the gender of the volunteers running the neighbourhood programs, sorting books at the library, organizing the school's book fair. Now take a look at your city council. See a difference?

A new report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives ranked the country's 25 largest cities based on their female-friendliness. The report looked at factors such as economic security and education. But the political statistics were perhaps the most telling of the balance of power: Where are the female voices on the country's city councils?

St John's, for example, has no women on council. In Hamilton, women make up only 20 per cent of elected officials. Victoria – which, incidentally, took first place in the rankings – is the only city where female city councillors outnumber their male peers.

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In a country fuelled by the economies of its cities, a shortage of female politicians – and a lack of overall diversity – on city councils is troubling, especially considering the influence of municipal policy in residents' lives, and the key decisions councils make about fiscal priorities, including child care and affordable housing. It's not as if there aren't plenty of qualified candidates: Across the country, urban-dwelling Canadian women have more education than men.

"We have a problem we need to work on," says the study's author, Kate McInturff, a senior researcher at the CCPA. "To have that level of qualified women and that persistent low representation, we have to do more than we are now. The status quo isn't cutting it."

She suggests that the cost of campaigning may be a barrier, as well as cuts to the non-profit sector, which often served as a grassroots training ground for upcoming municipal politicians.

The study's findings also reinforce how social policy and job markets spin out by gender.

Victoria earned its first place ranking largely from its high percentage of jobs in the public sector, which has much smaller gender wage gaps than private sector employers. In Victoria, women also have almost identical levels of employment as men, with a difference of only 3 per cent. Quebec cities landed in the top 10 because of generous maternity and paternity leaves, and the province's child care program.

Cities with male-dominated sectors, such as tech or oil and gas, fell at the bottom of the rankings because of gaps in employment and pay. Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo took last place, with Edmonton and Calgary following closely behind at the bottom of the pack. In Alberta, for instance, the report points out that men hold 88 per cent of the construction jobs, and 76 per cent of oil and gas jobs.

Edmonton has had among the highest wages in the country, but also one of the biggest gender gaps; there, full-time female workers earn $16,000 less than men.

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At the same time, the report applauded some grassroots movements to level out the urban gender playing field, including Edmonton food servers who protested being asked to wear miniskirts on the job, and a group in Quebec City that helps hearing-impaired women get access to perinatal care.

When it comes to senior city managers, the gender gap is smaller – in the top cities, women make up more than one-third of senior managers. Still, the municipal buck stops at council.

In Halifax, for example, there are only four women out of 17 councillors weighing on those decisions in the council chamber. Burlington has one woman on council. In the nation's capital, less than one in five elected officials in Ottawa and the outlying areas are women. The same is true of Oshawa. Toronto does slightly better: One-third of its elected officials are female.

Here's the ranked list:

1. Victoria

2. Gatineau

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3. Quebec City

4. Abbotsford-Mission

5. Halifax

6. London

7. Vancouver

8. Barrie

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9. Montreal

10. Oshawa

11. Ottawa

12. Toronto

13. Kelowna

14. Regina

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15. St. John's

16. St. Catharines-Niagara

17. Kingston

18. Winnipeg

19. Sherbrooke

20. Hamilton

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21. Saskatoon

22. Windsor

23. Calgary

24. Edmonton

25. Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo

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