Sue Montgomery calls out gender disparity at city council, one stitch at a time

"There's a handful of men who take up a lot of space," says the mayor of Côte-des-Neiges—Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, who has started tracking how often men and women speak at city council with her knitting.

Using her knitting, borough mayor tracks how often women and men speak at council

Côte-des-Neiges—Notre-Dame-de-Grâce Mayor Sue Montgomery has begun knitting a scarf that shows how often women and men speak at city council. Men's voices are represented with red yarn while women are represented by green. (Charles Contant/CBC)

Sue Montgomery has started work on a new creative project, and it has a political edge.

Prone to knitting during city council meetings in order to stay focused on the speakers, the mayor of Côte-des-Neiges—Notre-Dame-de-Grâce began documenting how often and for how long men speak compared to women.

The red yarn represents men and the green represents women. While not an exact science, the disparity is clear.

"I would say it's probably 75 per cent, 80 per cent red and the rest, there's little bits of green here and there," she told CBC Montreal's Daybreak.

The difference, however, isn't a result of the makeup of council. 

"We have parity almost on city council," she said, noting there are 31 female councillors and 34 male councillors.

How to explain the gap then? Montgomery says it comes down to the way councilors express themselves.

"The women are much more efficient, stand up, make their point sit down," she said. "Men like to hear themselves talk. What can I say?"

She admits that this is a generalization, and that not all men on council tend to use up blocks of time "pontificating."

"There's a handful of men who take up a lot of space."

She said the long speeches where points are often repeated decrease the efficiency and productivity of council meetings.

She also worries that it makes the meetings less accessible to the public.

"Frankly, it's quite boring," she said. "We spend a day and a half there usually."

She's hoping that by drawing attention to the pattern she's witnessed, "maybe men will get the message that they can be more efficient in their delivery."

Montgomery said she plans to keep up the knitting project until Christmas, and then wants to auction off the piece in support of an organization that promotes women's empowerment.

Reaction at City Hall

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante weighed in on the scarf project Tuesday morning at City Hall, praising Montgomery for her creative approach.

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante stopped short of commenting on whether or not men usually speak more than women at council meetings. (CBC)

"I like the initiative of using art, I consider knitting as a form of art," Plante said.

But she stopped short of commenting on whether men usually speak more than women at council meetings.

"I'm going to let Sue speak her mind on that front," she told reporters.

Plante added that while her executive committee has reached gender parity, there are still a few more men on council to tip the scale.

"I think the fact that there is more men sitting in this room has an impact," she said, gesturing to council chambers.

City councillor Marvin Rotrand told CBC that he doesn't think it's a "question of male dominance," but rather partly the result of a decision made by Projet Montréal.

"Most of their leaders and most of their speakers are male. Valérie Plante does speak, but usually in question period and rarely in the rest of the agenda. We just don't hear her," he said.

Rotrand said that most of the speaking from Projet is done by François Limoges, Benoit Dorais and Sylvain Ouellet. "They speak all the time. And that's [the party's] decision, who they make their spokespeople."

City Councillor Marvin Rotrand says he worries about any attempt to limit open debate at council. (CBC)

Montgomery countered that suggestion, saying that she doesn't count Limoges, because as the leader of Projet Montréal he goes through the agenda and "has no choice but to talk."

"I don't count Cathy Wong in this either," she said, referring to the independent councillor for Peter-McGill and the first woman to serve as speaker.

Montgomery named a handful of councillors from both Projet and the opposition who she feels could benefit from a gentle reminder to wrap it up quickly. 

Rotrand, for his part, said he takes Montgomery's criticism of speakers who go on at length with a grain of salt, saying the flip side is that people are cut off before they are finished talking.

"Debate is absolutely necessary and trying to constrain debate is not a good thing," he said.

Stirring up debate

Montgomery posted a photo of her knitting project on social media Monday night and it quickly sparked debate.

Some online commenters applauded Montgomery for coming up with a creative way to address a problem seen across different industries.

Others disagreed with her stance, saying that if the male speakers aren't going over their allotted time, they shouldn't be chastized. Some suggested that it's up to women councillors to use up more of their allotted time and make their voices heard more often.

Responding to a commenter on Facebook, Montgomery said that while she realizes her scarf presents a generalization, "the proof is in the knitting."


Marilla Steuter-Martin

Former CBC journalist

Marilla Steuter-Martin was a journalist with CBC Montreal from 2015 to 2021.

With files from CBC Montreal's Daybreak


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