Report from the Field: Things We (Canadian Policy Wonks) Take for Granted


MPP candidates at the School of Public Policy and Governance have the opportunity to study abroad in their second year of studies. This year, we are featuring these students’ experiences in a mini-series: Reports from the Field. Brianne Kirkpatrick is currently on exchange at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, Germany.

Brianne Kirkpatrick

1.  Everything (social) is better in Europe

Despite all that we are privileged with in Canada, there remains a hint of ‘grass is greener’ syndrome when we compare ourselves to similar societies across the pond. Longer vacations, generous unemployment insurance policies and the apparent absence of an American emphasis on individual vs. collective rights and freedoms are just a few examples. It can be surprising, then, for North America to come out on top on a social issue. Perhaps even more surprising (if you’ve been over-focusing on Scandinavia’s progressive labour and family policy) is for this issue to be gender equality.

As it currently stands, the female labour force participation rate in Germany sits at 53.2% — 9 percentage points lower than the Canadian rate.  “Varieties of Capitalism” literature attributes both this gap and the lower number of women in higher paid, higher status jobs to institutional complementarities in continental Coordinated Market Economies (CME) (Mandel and Shalev 2009, 161-181).  In CMEs, companies invest heavily in specific skills, and employment protection policies guarantee workers long-term, stable employment and thus a return on their specific skill investment. Because of the added expense, firms will be wary about hiring women who may experience work interruptions due to childbearing and child rearing. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: as women are aware of their comparative disadvantage with men on the specific-skills market, they will instead invest in general skills and in areas where the field is broad enough to allow for breaks in employment or part-time opportunities.

In contrast, the North American system is based on self-investment in general skills (to remain flexible in the labour force) and relatively less state-provided employment protection. As such, “there is no economic reason why companies should discriminate against women in higher status jobs” (Mandel and Shalev 2009, 175).  Thus, women fare better in more ‘fluid’ labour markets, like Canada’s.[1]

2.  The honour system is for boy scouts (and we should design our cities accordingly)

Transit systems in any new city can be confusing. Typically, I employ a full tourist strategy and make a beeline for the first person I see in a uniform. Imagine my surprise when, after descending the familiar concrete stairs into the underground world of transit tunnels, I was greeted by…no one. Not even a whisper of an official. Not even a turnstile!

The famously efficient German U-Bahn and S-Bahn subway train system runs on the honour system. There are ticket machines, where one can purchase and validate one’s ticket before getting on the train, but I would assume that most people buy (affordable) passes every month. There are also transit officials who occasionally hop on and off trains to check for tickets and administer fines if said ticket cannot be produced; these oversight visits do not occur often as I have yet to see one.

This means not having to fish through your wallet or purse for your pass or token. Not having to wrench your backpack or suitcase through those metal spokes. In a word, it means freedom. In another, it means respect. In a few more, it means efficiency and increased ridership.

Admittedly, much of this system’s success may be attributed to German culture, where individual freedom does not mean ‘taking everything you can get’ and where rule-following is not just for the square. In Canada, the honour system has been embraced in the past by Vancouver’s skytrain, and by Calgary and Edmonton’s LRT. This leaves me with some questions. Are barriers to widespread adoption of this system cultural or institutional? In the age of decreased funding and increased expectations of our municipalities, can Canadian cities find solutions where honesty translates into efficiency?

3.  Green is ‘not black’

I owe this final observation to the international student population at Hertie, and through this, the opportunity to conduct casual comparative policy studies and learn different state policy trajectories by osmosis. The most striking thus far has been in the field of energy policy. With all countries facing the complex policy problem of climate change, the pressure to employ earth friendly (typically low greenhouse gas emitting) energy systems has never been higher.

Yet, three different energy stories have emerged from Germany, Australia and Canada.

In Germany – the global champion in the fight against climate change – they are pulling out of nuclear power.

In Australia, where mining of black coal remains one of the most important industries, they are fixated on carbon capture and storage.

In Ontario (forgive me for not attempting to synthesize a ‘Canadian energy picture’), coal is being aggressively phased out, and as a result, the government is pushing to refurbish nuclear power.

In short, my Canadian presumption that green energy means avoiding coal and oil (‘not black’) does not capture the whole picture. For better or worse, ‘green’ can also mean avoiding nuclear or turning to technology to mitigate emissions from coal. It all depends on your latitude/longitude and the accompanying industrial interests. The one ‘right’ approach to green energy systems remains elusive – if it even exists at all.

Currently on exchange at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, Germany, Brianne Kirkpatrick is a candidate for the 2013 Master of Public Policy from the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto. She holds a BA (Hons.) in Political Science from Lakehead University.

[1] This explanation does not address the high numbers of low-income women who are taking on traditional ‘household’ work in a paid sphere, typically supporting women who have secured higher status jobs.

Works Cited

Mandel, Hadas and Michael Shalev (2009) Gender, Class, and Varieties of Capitalism Social Politics Vol. 16 (2).

3 Comments Add yours

  1. bednarva says:

    I like this! But, no fashion, food, or street art comparison? Just kidding!

  2. James says:

    Your piece nods in the right direction, but ultimately it seems to fall into the very trap I was hoping it would address.

    In point one, you pick just one social indicator to prove that Europe is not necessarily more socially advanced than Canada. The one you choose, is not sufficient to prove your point. It’s simply one isolated argument, with limited discussion. Then, in point two, you give exactly the kind of example people use when showing that Europe IS INDEED socially more advanced…also just one isolated argument.

    On their own, both points are arguably valid, but if the point of your piece is to dispel with wonkish assumptions, I don’t think you quite make it. I take your larger point (tangentially), but I’m not sure you lift your reader above the weeds you attempted to cut down.

    There’s merit in your intentions and I think it’s an issue worth pursuing further. Thanks.

    1. Brianne says:

      @bednarva – the fashion, food and street art comparison was a close second…if only I’d audited the cultural policy course.

      @James – Thank you for the feedback! I agree – the discussion is limited in this piece, in favour of sacrificing depth for breadth within a word limit. While I offer these points as ‘food for thought’, a research piece would certainly do them better justice – specifically 3, separate articles to fully explore the 3 different policy themes presented. You’re also right that the second point highlights a favourable social aspect of Germany – a culture of trust and respect for the ‘greater good’. I should clarify that the assumption ‘Everything (social) is better in Europe’ is in no way meant to argue that Everything (social) in Europe is, in fact, worse. I simply found it interesting that comparative gender coups for North America can go overlooked.

      Thank you again for your thoughts.



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