Published: | Canada

Add women, change politics: Sumi Shan on running for office as a Tamil woman

We need more women in politics, Sumi Shan writes. It's not always easy, but the rewards are worth it.

I caught the bug early.

I was 14 when I attended my first political rally. It was exciting - the cheering was loud and and the energy in the room was incredible. What I loved about it was that everyone had come together because they believed in something bigger than themselves. They believed in the power we have when we work together. Despite the noise, the signs and the crush of people, I felt like I belonged in politics.

So I studied political science. I worked as a political staffer, and then went on to roles with Heart and Stroke and Microsoft, as well as starting my own business. But politics has always kept me engaged.

Those experiences taught me that I have something real to contribute, that I have the skills and determination to make a difference. With this election being a defining moment for Ontario, I decided that I needed to do something. I decided to run because I didn’t want Doug Ford as my premier.

In many ways it wasn’t always an obvious choice. I’m a woman of colour. It's a sad reality that when people picture a political leader, they don’t always picture someone who looks like me. And the attacks on women in public life can be vicious.

Every politician faces harsh words, and everyone who puts their name on a ballot should expect criticism. Having your ideas challenged is a vital a part of our democratic process.

But the hatred that I see directed at female politicians - the violence, the obscenity, the anger - is something different.

What’s more, in my experience women are less likely to put themselves forward to run for office. A man has to be asked to two or three times. It can take a woman being asked ten or fifteen times to say “yes, I’ll run.”  That had been the case with me.

Family pressures are still a factor too. As a caretaker for my late mother, I understand that. Women are more likely to take the lead on childcare, and eldercare, it can be harder for them to sit in legislatures away from their homes and families.

As women, and especially as women of colour, we cannot let any of that dissuade us from being a part of political life. We can ask for more from our politicians and our political parties. We can ask for respect, for workplaces that accommodate family responsibilities, for an equal place at the table.

Because when you add women, you change politics.

Women are so often leaders in their communities. We’re more likely to care for children and seniors, more likely to work for lower pay, more likely to run household finances. We have experiences and voices that need to be heard.

From my experience in corporate life I know the evidence that says having women in leadership makes a difference. Organizations with women on boards and in leadership show higher profits, have higher valuations, and better returns on equity. Early evidence suggests gender diversity may drive innovation, with gender-diverse board heading companies that file more patents.

We have also seen the difference that have women in leadership makes in government. Under Premier Wynne, Ontario’s first female Premier, we’ve had a 46% female cabinet. And the women in that cabinet have developed policies that impact women’s lives, like free pre-school childcare, full day kindergarten, historic funding of domestic violence shelters and sexual assault centres. In the age of #metoo, the Liberal government has invested up to $242 million in ending gender-based violence. And the government has set targets for private boards to  have 30% women in corporate leadership, while making sure women make up 40% of public boards.

Policies like the $15 minimum wage impact women, too, as the majority of minimum wage earners are women. And investments in transit are investments in women, who make up a majority of public transit riders.  

The Liberal government has also launched Then Now Next: Ontario’s Strategy for Women’s Economic Empowerment. This includes Canada’s first pay transparency legislation, so women have the information to negotiate for the pay they deserve. It also includes something close to my heart: more training and support for female entrepreneurs, and programming to get girls thinking about being entrepreneurs themselves. There’s also a fund for community groups to set up networking and mentoring for their members. Think what that could mean for Tamil women - government money to help us learn from each other about how to build business and get into leadership positions at work.

This is what happens when women lead. Adding women can really change politics. And it can change lives, by making sure the government really hears what women are asking for.

I want to represent Scarborough Rouge Park for the same reason I kept coming back to politics after that first political rally.  I still believe in the power we have when we work together. As women, and especially women of colour, we know it matters to have a diversity of voice. We do belong in politics.





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