Ending the old boys club

Fredericton city councillor Kate Rogers, seen in this file photo, came forward to speak about the challenges of being the only woman on council. (Jerry-Faye Flatt/AQ)

Every table at the small Tipsy Muse café in downtown Fredericton is filled with university students looking for a place to study outside their bedrooms. I manage to snag a table, well not so much a table but two stools by a window, just before Kate Rogers arrives in a rush with a round of waves and a greeting for the barista.

“I really wasn’t sure if we’d get a spot,” she said. “Tables at coffee shops are the hottest commodity right now.”

On the surface, Rogers is a natural small city politician. She first ran for city council in 2012 and after a successful campaign was elected councillor for ward 11, which includes east downtown and the University of New Brunswick.

When she set out on her political journey, she had plans to become a champion of the arts. She never imagined she’d end up becoming a campaigner for equality at city hall. After seven years on council, Rogers came forward to speak about the challenges of being the only woman on council. She likened the experience to being hit by a truck.

Before running for council, Rogers helped create the Fredericton Arts Alliance and the Charlotte Street Arts Centre.

“We were never talking about it. We weren’t capitalizing on the fact that we had all of this brilliance and talent in our midst and taking advantage of it.”

She felt the city wasn’t paying enough attention to the arts and culture within it.

“There just hadn’t been anyone at the table saying how much benefit we could have by starting to promote the culture that we have in the city.”

Many of the city’s current art projects stem from an Arts and Culture Committee that was proposed and chaired by Rogers, which include painted manhole covers, public art exhibits and the artist-in-residence series at O’Dell Park.

While Rogers’ commitment to drawing attention to the arts sector in Fredericton was well received by council, she was struggling in ways she didn’t expect.

Rogers remembers when she was first elected, meetings would often be held at 5 o’clock. She would find herself skipping lunch so she could leave work in time to pick up her kids, make dinner and help shuttle them off to various activities.

“I’d walk in five minutes late to 5 o’clock meetings and some people would roll their eyes but meanwhile all they had to do was walk from their office to city hall.”

I asked how she manages to balance everything, but I roll my eyes and apologize in the process. How exhausting it must be to answer those questions, a question her male colleagues almost never receive.

“It’s okay,” she smiles. “There’s no balance. I would say to any woman who wants to run, if you have a full-time job and then on top of it if you also have a family life. It’s not like you’re not going to be balanced but you might be really satisfied.”

She remembers some people speaking over her or rolling their eyes when she spoke. These were common experiences during her early days on council.

Coming from years in the arts sector, she knew being passionate was a good and important thing but when fellow councillors referred to her as “passionate,” she wasn’t sure how to take it.

“I would speak like very unequivocally about something and I thought that I’ve made a convincing argument based on data and the response would be like, ‘we know you’re very passionate about this.’”

“[Passionate] that’s a good thing right, it’s a positive. It means that you’re committed and at first I was like, I don’t know if that’s a problem, but it didn’t feel like a compliment.”

Her speaking out has helped spark change within the Fredericton municipality but there is still a long way to go, and Rogers is happy to be along for the ride.

“It’s gotten better,” she smiled. “I mean, I don’t think even a year ago we’d be sitting here talking about this.”

“We can’t just behave the way we’ve always behaved and think that’s okay, all of us need to be more intentional and different and I think since we’ve started talking that way, for the most part, there has been more intentionality, that there wasn’t at one time.”

For Rogers, this wasn’t always apparent to her either. A few years ago, one of her female employees came to her to express discomfort with the way a man was speaking to her. Rogers shrugged.

“My first reaction was, ‘yeah, that’s just the way they are,” Rogers said but then stopped herself mid-sentence.

“Then I just said to her, ‘I can’t believe I’m telling you to accept that behaviour, that’s unacceptable.”

Rogers called this her “ah-ha” moment.

“I didn’t want to offend. I knew they were good people and I put up with it, and then when I heard myself encouraging the next generation of women to put up with it, that’s when I said enough.”

“It’s one thing that I let myself put up that but I’m not letting this next generation, of which my daughters are part of, put up with this. It’s enough. If these are the good guys that I keep saying they are, then they’ll hear us say, you know, this is not cool behaviour.”

She said that often she’ll say something, having a fellow councillor agree with her or repeat what she has said, and somehow, they get the credit for the idea in the media and beyond.

“Another councillor just agreed with what I said, but you didn’t hear my voice because it’s a woman’s and you don’t know how to hear a woman’s voice in an authoritative way.”

Rogers said she doesn’t blame anybody for that, but people need to become more aware of having intentional interactions.

She said now, whenever she’s part of a virtual meeting and a woman apologizes for her children in the background, she makes a point of applauding them. She’ll tell them how wonderful it is that their children are playing happily, and that mothers are able to work and do what they enjoy. She said if real change is ever going to be made for women and minority groups, people need to work on being intentional listeners, motivators and think about what their actions are doing.

Rogers grew up in Fredericton but never imagined herself staying there. After meeting her husband, she was waiting for him to complete his master’s degree before going on to do a PhD.

“By the time he finished, I just didn’t want my PhD anymore. I’d fallen in love with the arts sector here in Fredericton.”

She believes significant progress has been made after the day in her office when she decided to start speaking up about being a female on council. In response to Rogers speaking out, the city has since formed an ad hoc committee on gender diversity.

The recommendations put forth by the committee include things such as a code of conduct, and Gender-Based Analysis + training for councillors.

GBA+ training is meant to train people to look at how policies and programs impact women and other minority groups differently. It’s a gender-based analysis but the “plus” looks at other identifying factors such as race or disability.

“It forces you to think of other intersectionality, so it automatically forces one to be more diverse than their usual thinking.”

An example of GBA+ provided by the Government of Canada is looking at snow removal. Women, seniors and children are more likely to walk or bike than men, but snow removal gives priority to clearing roads, which favours men’s transportation preference. It was found that not only did those policies have gender equality implications but that they didn’t encourage greener modes of transportation.

Rogers is proud of these changes and proud of all the progress that’s been made, but she admits the work is not yet done. The next thing she hopes to see is more women at the table after the May 2021 municipal election. She believes with more women at the table, they’ll be better received. With more women, she said, they’ll be less likely to be spoken over and more likely to be heard.

“That’s why we need more women. We just need more women to run.”

“I know of a lot of women who are saying that they’re interested in running. I know a few groups were really committed to supporting female candidates.”

The question Rogers has is, will they win? With the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be harder to gain attention for women who may currently have low profiles. But they’ll be trying with all their might.

She hopes to hold her council seat come May.

Rogers finishes her latte and prepares to head back to work before the weekend begins, as I realize that to meet me, she probably had to skip lunch.

“One more question,” I say. “Would you ever consider running for mayor?

“I just want to be sitting where I can make the most change,” she said.