Two new initiatives are taking aim at increasing the role and influence of women in Hamilton business and politics.

Saturday, dozens of women, backed by a range of civic organizations, will gather to find ways to get more women elected as political leaders. And a group of  70 professional women have created a committee at the Chamber of Commerce to try to foster develop and inspire more female leaders in Hamilton.

'Many of us in the community have noticed that there is a lack of those voices.' - Denise Doyle, executive director of YWCA Hamilton

“In many cases, we do have a lot of great leaders in Hamilton, but we don’t always take the time to recognize the leadership or in some cases, their voices aren’t included at decision-making tables,” said Denise Doyle, co-chair of the Women in Leadership committee and executive director of the local YWCA. “Many of us in the community have noticed that there is a lack of those voices.”

While Hamilton historically has had strong female leaders –  former MP Sheila Copps, Ontario NDP leader and former city councillor Andrea Horwath, MP Chris Charlton, former provincial cabinet minister Sophia Aggelonitis are few names – Hamilton's current city council is only 20 per cent female.

Hamilton is not alone. London’s council is 36 per cent female, Windsor’s is 10 per cent, and Kitchener-Waterloo’s is also at 20 per cent.

A joint Deloitte-Carleton University benchmarking study on women in leadership in Canada found that in 2011, women held only 29 per cent of senior management positions nation-wide, but accounted for 47 per cent of the workforce.

With the percentage of the women in senior management roles increasing by just one per cent annually, the study read, it will take until 2068 until half of those positions are filled by women.

A similar study by Ryerson University profiled the GTA – 28 per cent of senior leadership positions were filled by women in 2011.

Doyle said the Chamber committee, which met formally for the first time just over a week ago, wants to put together a similar study, quantifying female leadership in this city.

“I don’t think there is a deficit [of female leaders], but I don’t think they’ve had the same opportunities,” Doyle said.

That could be because of a lack of support and resources, and because women have other responsibilities, said city councillor Brenda Johnson.

“From the women I heard from who want to run for council but say, ‘I can’t right now,’ nine times out of 10, its because they have a young family,” she said.

Johnson herself didn’t have the same problems; her kids were in their 20s when she ran for the Ward 10 leadership in 2010.

“I didn’t have young children and that could have been one of the reasons why I held back for so long,” she said. “We never hear men say that.”

One of the things Johnson has questioned since she last attended a women in leadership conference is why, as a city, we can’t seem to help women who want to run for office.

“Why can’t we as women pull together and even help pay the $100 entry fee. Why can’t women pull together and babysit the kids while mom goes campaigning,” she said.

We don’t want women not to come forward because of other responsibilities, she said, because just running for election is tough enough.

“It’s scary to put your name on the ballot,” she said. “Generally, women are cautious to throw their name in the hat about anything.”

Good for business

There is a business case for having women sitting a boardroom tables, in council chambers and CEO offices.

Doyle said one of Saturday’s speakers, Chris Bart, director at The Directors College, will talk about corporations being more successful economically and make better decisions when women are part of the senior team.

“It’s a detriment to the community when women aren’t at the table,” said Deirdre Pike, Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton’s senior planner. “There is less corruption when women have at least 30 per cent representation.”

Pike says women use less political jargon, they pay attention to different issues than men like social inclusion, they look for who is not counted at the table.

For Pike and others, lack of women on council is just part of the problem.

“There are no minorities,” Johnson said, of city council. “It’s all white male and we have three females. That’s reflective of  a lack of diversity on the whole.”

Without role models, it's not easy for anyone to step into leadership roles, Doyle said. 

“Hamilton is changing and there is that old saying, ‘You can’t be what you don’t see.’ ” 

Pike suggests in order for new faces to step in, some familiar ones need to step out.

“What needs to happen is people in power need to make room,” she said. “They need to say, ‘for the betterment of my community, someone else can do this job...' That takes integrity.”

In the years she’s been in Hamilton, Pike has seen an improvement — more women empowered to take on leadership roles. 

At a conference for young professionals two weeks ago, Doyle was invited to participate in the "speed dating" event, a quick way to get to know a large part of the community. She walked away from that conference impressed, confident Hamilton will see more female leaders in the years to come.

“The women were very, very interested in talking about leadership so I came away thinking our future is in good hands,” she said. “I have great hopes for the future leaders of our city.”