Delta has a strong contingent of women in positions of leadership, and some women hope that these will create positive role models for young women in Delta. (Grace Kennedy photos)

Delta has the ‘right mix’ for women leaders

On International Women’s Day, Delta women look at how the city makes opportunities for leadership

Carla Qualtrough was in Guadalajara, presenting a bid for the Pan and Parapan American Games, when she found out she was pregnant.

It was 2009, and she was hoping to make Toronto the host city in 2015. If Toronto won the bid, it would need five years of organization and hard volunteering to make the games happen.

Toronto won, which meant Qualtrough would be flying to Ontario every two or three months for the next five years.

“I basically said, ‘I can’t volunteer with you guys if you can’t accommodate my child responsibilities,’” now-MP Qualtrough explained, sitting in her constituency office on Scott Road.

“By that time, to be fair, I had enough leadership seniority that they were probably more prepared to accommodate me. But if I didn’t ask, then the younger woman who maybe didn’t have the clout I had might not get it either. So it’s kind of pay it forward.”

Working with the Pan Am Games, Qualtrough’s daughter Jessica grew up at those periodic meetings, first sitting in her car seat under the table when she was less than a year old, then graduating to a play pen in the corner.

It was the same thing that happened with her son when she was on the board of the Delta Gymnastics Society.

“If my two-year-old was cranky, I brought him to the board meeting and everyone was okay with that,” Qualtrough said. “And then I thought, ‘Oh okay. If that works in that environment, then maybe I can dream bigger.’

“It’s these little things that contribute to the culture of inclusion, and Delta seems to have the right mix.”

That elusive “right mix” has garnered Delta a generation of strong female leadership — particularly in politics.

Since the 1970s, there have been 10 women elected to council, compared to 27 men. However, those female politicians have had longer staying power: on average, the women have been elected to council for nearly twice as long as the men. Since 1990, there have only been two mayors, and both have been women: Beth Johnson and Lois Jackson.

Yet even outside of city council, Delta has seen a flourishing of female leaders. For the last four years, nearly half of the school board trustees are women. Both the chair and the vice-chair are women, and that election saw the Delta School District’s first indigenous woman representative.

RELATED: Most Canadians don’t feel more women needed in politics: survey

“One of the things I think we see in Delta overall is an appreciation for equal opportunities for leadership, and we see lots of women engaged on the Delta political scene,” said Laura Dixon, chair of the Delta School Board. “So I think Delta is very open and receptive as a community, and certainly I find the education sector is very open and receptive.”

For Dixon, Delta’s uniqueness also comes from the different types of female leadership in the community.

“It’s not just elected positions,” she explained, “but the fact that we have these major pieces of infrastructure as a result of women who have seen a need is pretty impressive.”

Reach Child and Youth Development Society’s new Lois E. Jackson Kinsmen Centre for Children is one example — spearheaded by society executive director Renie D’Aquila. The Delta Gymnastics building is another; Delta Hospice a third.

“There are lots of strong leaders who are female, and that gives people role models,” Qualtrough said. “It just kind of perpetuates. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

One of those role models, Qualtrough said, was Mayor Jackson: “Talk about someone who had to bust through glass ceilings.”

In 1973, at 35, Jackson became the first female member of Delta council. At the time a mother of three young children, she ran hoping for more representation for her home community of North Delta.

“I was raised to think I could do anything,” Jackson said. “It wasn’t really a huge leap for me … although I suppose there was nobody more surprised than I was when I got elected. There weren’t very many people who were women in office in those days.”

READ MORE: Looking back with Delta Mayor Lois Jackson

Now the longest serving council member since Delta was incorporated (beating current councillor Bruce McDonald by one year), Jackson has taken on numerous major projects during her time in council. She is most proud of the purchase of Burns Bog in 2004, just four years after she became mayor.

“I’ve never viewed my position as the token woman,” she said. “You have to be as good, and compete at the very same level as everybody else.”

Her role as mayor is what Qualtrough credits for inspiring other young Delta women to take leadership roles.

“I think it just took one or two really strong female leaders back in the day, and the rest of us could then see ourselves in that role,” she said.

The work that Jackson and other local woman have done in positions of authority have hopefully made it easier for young women to make their way into leadership roles, although, Jackson warns, women will always have to be cognizant of the sacrifices needed to succeed in those roles.

“Everyone has a wonderful opportunity to be exactly what they want to be,” Jackson said. “It takes a lot of work, a lot of commitment. Obviously you have to make choices, you have to give a lot of things up.”

But for Qualtrough, there will always been a need for forward-thinking, innovative women to make those sacrifices.

“The only way we’re going to break this barrier is by having bold, young, confident women bust it down.”

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