Women in Guelph have come into their own in the worlds of politics, business and academe

Sealed in Guelph's millennium project, a canoe-shaped sculpture beached in John Galt Park, are more than 10,000 offerings that will eventually provide a future generation with a glimpse into the city's past.

In the steel time capsule are photos, school pins, yearbooks, videotapes, even a toddlers first-drawing that's locked his place in history. There are also a couple of faded newspaper articles clipped by Karen Farbridge. In 2000, she made headlines – and history – when she became Guelph's first female mayor.

That win was a milestone in local municipal politics, though women such as MP Brenda Chamberlain and past MPP Brenda Elliot were earlier trailblazers at the federal and provincial levels.

Compared to other cities, Guelph is a place where women are well represented in both the public and private sectors.

"Guelph just seems to have collectively gotten over it," said Guelph Wellington MPP Liz Ssandals. "And (Guelph) accepts that women can do the job as well as men."

In all three levels of government, the top spots are held by women. The city's university has welcomed more than 100 women faculty in the past decade. And, of the three female chief executive officer's who run large corporations in Canada, two of them operate businesses in Guelph.

For the cities most prominent women women, this seems no better place to live and lead then here. And that has resulted in a local culture of acceptance and support.

"I think where we are today, it isn't an issue of whether you're male or female as much as whether you're able to move into those (leadership) roles," said Kathy Bardswick, CEO of the Cooperators General Insurance Co.

Bardswick was appointed chief executive in early 2002, after 24 years of service. Her background in technology, human resources, field management and running subsidy organizations ultimately netted her the job.

But she says her husband's decision to work from home also aided her career.

"I'm lucky because I'm married to someone who wants that," she explained. "That's helped me be able to do the job I'm doing."

According to a report released this month by Toronto-based executive recruiter Rosenzweig & Company, Bardswick is one of only three female CEOs at this country's largest 100 publicly traded companies.

Linda Hazenfratz, CEO of Linamar Corp., Guelph's largest employer, is another:

The third is Nancy Southern, CEO of Utility conglomerate Atco ltd.

Hazenfratz chose to learn her family's business at the ground floor: she worked on the factory floor of the auto parts manufacturer and climb the ladder to CEO, a position she's held since 2002.

"I really wanted to get a very thorough understanding," she said. "It gives you great perspective on how the company runs. It makes you better leader."

But it isn't just in the business sector that local women are excelling.

At the University of Guelph, three of the four vice-presidents, 30% of the faculty and 60% of the student body are women, should Provost Maureen Mancuso.

Professor Valerie Davidson, who holds an Ontario chair for women in science and engineering, is paving the way for the next generation of girls to move into these disciplines.

Davidson oversees the annual event Go Eng Girl at the U of G. It's an opportunity for young women from Guelphs' senior elementary and high schools to try engineering feats – with a fun twist, of course.

The girls learn to make toothpaste and even earthquake-proof structures. And female undergrads and graduate students are there to help them along.

"It's important girls in elementary or high school connect with someone who might be the next stage," Davidson said.

And there are plenty of leaders in this community. For years, Guelph has appointed accomplished women to the city's highest ranks. But those jobs aren't without challenges.

Lenna Bradburn, who became the first female police chief in Canada when she joined the Gueplh Police, said she's always been asked about the difficulties she faced as a woman in that position. She left the job in 2000, after six years of service, with a controversial severance package following a report that a police board member allegedly made derogatory comments about her.

Still, Bradburn says the challenges she faced weren't necessarily the result of her gender.

"I was very atypical for a number of reasons, not just just because I was female, but because I was young, I had a different educational background and I came from the outside," she said. "Those four things had an impact on how people reacted to me or perceived me."

The same is true for Farbridge when she became mayor and 2000. She said a small minority of people had a problem with her moving into that role.

"It was more combination of being younger and a women, I think," she said. She was 39 when she took office.

But that also made a role model.

"I've had a lot of mothers speak to me, certainly in the past, about how excited their daughters were about me running (for mayor)."

Kate Quarrie continued the trend of having an female mayor from 2003-06. In last fall's election, three of the four mayoral candidates were women.

Farbridge said a friend's little boy had an interesting question for her during last fall's campaign.

"The boy wanted to know, 'Did you have a woman to run for mayor?'" Farbridge said with a laugh.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities reports that women represent 12.9% of mayors and 22.9% of councillors in Canada – an average of 21.4%. In Guelph, 69% of council seats were filled by women.

Ward 4 Councillor Gloria Kovach, who is also the president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, said the federation "is saying maybe we need to come to Guelph and see what they're doing right."

Kovach said she's heard about places were female counselors are slighted in meetings are intentionally put on committees the meet when they're supposed to pick up children from school.

Even in neighbouring municipalities, it's been a challenge to get women to try politics.

Jane Mitchell, a regional counselor in Waterloo, helped organize the municipal campaign school to give women the tools to run for office.

Two sessions later, it's proven successful – Waterloo has gone from having no women on city council to having them fill half the seats. All are graduates of the campaign school.

So does that mean the old boys' club is a thing of the past? Not likely.

Judy McKenzie an associate professor of political science at the U of G, said women wanted want those strong social networks, but also want to balance the demands of work and family.

"Municipal politics is more conducive to the lives of women because they don't have to relocate, especially with the family," she said.

Sandals said she held off running provincially until her children were older. Like many women, she got to her political start at the school board level.

That was also the case for Brenda Chamberlain, who was the first woman elected in the federal Guelph Wellington riding. After nine years on the school board, she was asked to run provincially, in 1990. She decided against it, in part because she was caring for her elderly mother. She ran federally instead, in 1993, and has been elected five times.

"Women not only in their young child-bearing years but also their older years, women tend to be caregivers.... That does impact on the woman's life from very early on in a career."

Donna Lero, a professor in the department of family relations and applied nutrition at the U of G, cautioned it's easy to get hung up on the gender of strong leaders.

Balancing work and family are legitimate challenges for women, she said, but it's important to recognize not everyone fits into society's widespread gender roles. Just as mothers can be breadwinners, fathers can be nurturers.

Lero says what's needed is effective leadership by individuals who can balance their work and family life.

"That's the model we should be celebrating, regardless of whether it's by women or men."

That's the way Dr. Anne-Marie Zajdlik feels. The family doctor who opened Guelph's HIV/AIDS clinic, the Messiah Centre, said it's the residents who make the city so progressive.

"The fact that we live in community where women can take on leadership roles is a real testament to the men.

"Guelph doesn't have that old boys club now. That means were all in the same place. We're all working together."