‘No room for women’: N.S. women in politics talk about sexism and what keeps them going

Interim PC Leader Karla MacFarlane said she found her physical appearance was constantly under scrutiny after she was elected.
Interim PC Leader Karla MacFarlane said she found her physical appearance was constantly under scrutiny after she was elected. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Some of Nova Scotia’s most well-known female politicians are speaking out about how sexism affects them on the job and what motivates them to serve the public.

Karla MacFarlane, interim leader of the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative Party, said she encountered sexist attitudes even before she was elected MLA in Pictou-West.

When she was first seeking nomination in her riding in 2012, an elderly male PC supporter walked into her business and asked to speak with her.

“He basically flat out said, ‘Look Karla, I know you’re a great lady and everything, but there’s no room for women in politics.’

“At that point I was still deciding if I was going to throw my name in the hat,” she said. “And when that happened, I thought, ‘Oh, I’m definitely doing it now!'”

MacFarlane is one of 10 women representing different levels of government — and all relatively new to politics — who will share their personal experiences at an event in Sydney on Thursday night.

“We Rise: Women in Politics” is a panel discussion presented by Cape Breton Voices and Equal Voice Nova Scotia at the New Dawn Centre for Social Innovation at 6 p.m.

Election Debates 20171130
The federal Liberal government has made equality a focal point of its agenda, introducing a budget last month with money for new parental supports, gender equality and anti-harassment initiatives. (Peter Power/Canadian Press)

MacFarlane, 48, said once she was elected, she found her physical appearance was constantly under scrutiny.

“And it was always by men. I’d walk into my local Tim Hortons or [another] coffee shop, and individuals felt they had the privilege to say to me, ‘Oh, wow, Karla, this job must be treating you well, you look like you put weight on.’ Or, you know, ‘Your hair is different.’ … So I always find that I’m being judged.”

MacFarlane was quick to praise her party’s handling of recent allegations of sexual harassment against former PC leader Jamie Baillie.

“The type of thing that has recently happened in our party happens in any profession.”

What’s important in the context of the current #MeToo movement, she said, is to give women the tools to know how to deal with and resolve instances of harassment.

‘Passionate’ vs. ’emotional’

Kendra Coombes, a 29-year-old Cape Breton Regional councillor and a co-organizer of the panel, recalls the first time she discussed the role of women in politics with her mother at the age of 11 or 12, after seeing a campaign sign bearing the face of her aunt, Helen MacDonald.

She was informed her aunt, then-leader of the Nova Scotia New Democratic Party, was running for re-election. “And I thought, ‘Oh wow!, that is fantastic!'”

MacDonald was equally pleased when, years later, Coombes decided to run for municipal council.

“We discussed how hard it was going to be,” said Coombes. “She didn’t … discuss her challenges as much.

Kendra Coombes
Cape Breton Regional Coun. Kendra Coombes is one of three women on the municipality’s 12-member council. (Holly Conners/CBC)

“She was more encouraging, and said, ‘You know you’re going to face sexism, but you’ve faced it before. You know you’re going to face condescension, but you’ve faced it before. It’s just going to be in…

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