Shannon Ross and Talha Sadiq
Shows like Scandal and West Wing enthrall audiences with stories about the lives of political staffers. But viewers are left to speculate about what aspects of the shows are accurate in real life. Meanwhile, discussions in the media and academia about the involvement of women and people from diverse backgrounds in politics continue to grow as people from diverse backgrounds run for, and are elected to, political office. The recruitment of women and people from diverse backgrounds as political staffers is discussed significantly less often. One is left to wonder how previously underrepresented or excluded groups of people can be encouraged to be involved in political parties.
Katie Telford, Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, spoke confidently about being intentional towards including women and people from diverse backgrounds in the political arena. Her lecture on September 25, 2017 was the first event of the School of Public Policy and Governance Women and Leadership series that will continue throughout the academic year, through generous support from the Peterson Fund. Telford- went beyond the typical discussions of encouraging women to run for political office; she spoke about recruiting and retaining people from diverse backgrounds in politics and as political staffers.
While political staff do not traditionally speak publicly, Telford told the audience that social media has changed the way political staff interact with the public. Further, speaking publicly as a political staffer clarifies misconceptions that the public may have about working in politics and encourages young people to consider a political career. According to Telford, speaking about working in politics is a strategy to build an inclusive environment:
One of the key issues that Telford raised in her talk was about the importance of “taking note of who is in the room.” Early in her career, she began keeping an informal tally of the gender divide during meetings. Normally, the gender composition of the room would go unnoticed in closed-door meetings. Her active approach in keeping tallies made her colleagues notice the gender disparity and helped push for more inclusivity in the government.
We are told that the active involvement of diverse Canadians in politics and the political process contributes to building an inclusive environment. To build an atmosphere of openness and transparency in the process can be as important as the results. Being intentional about inclusion takes time. Seeing diversity reflected in political representatives and political staff is a project that begins to succeed when those who oversee recruitment are intentional about their thinking and experiment with hiring tactics.
Katie Telford emphasized the importance of being persistent and planning for diverse and inclusive hiring. While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s gender balanced cabinet made headlines around the world in 2015, Telford shared that the process to achieve parity began earlier through the recruitment of female candidates. The Liberal Party of Canada sent a mass email to its members to gather submissions for the names of women should consider running for office. As a result of this process, MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes, one of five Liberal MPs of African, black or Caribbean descent, was elected to the House of Commons.
Telford also emphasized that retention is the biggest challenge for women in politics, not recruitment. She described the hallways of Parliament being lined with the portraits of old white men. Using this example, Telford sought to express the difficulty in convincing women to stay involved in politics, and feeling valued and supported in an arena that more broadly points out that women do not belong.
Donna Dasko, lecturer at the School of Public Policy and Governance, facilitated a discussion session and question and answer period. One member of the audience asked Telford for advice for young women considering politics. Telford suggested not to overthink why or why not to run. Telford stated that it “may seem counterintuitive, but prepare less and dive in sooner to opportunities.”
Shannon completed her Bachelor of Art with a major in Political Science and a minor in Women’s Studies at Western University. Before coming to SPPG, Shannon worked for the Ontario Public Service and participated on a number of projects in the not-for-profit sector. Her research interests include labour, immigration and intergovernmental relations. This past summer, Shannon worked at the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services in the Strategic Communications unit.
Talha completed his Honours Bachelor of Arts specializing in International Development and majoring in Environmental Studies from the University of Toronto. Before coming to SPPG, he worked at the United Nations World Food Programme. He is currently working at the Danish Trade Council as a Junior Advisor. His policy and research interests include health, environment, immigration and international development.
Photography by Lisa Sakulensky