Seen and Heard: SPPG’s Gender & Public Policy Workshop

Michael Stacey 

Born out of an especially vibrant discussion in Dr. Dan Zuberi’s Social Context of Policy Making class last year, the School of Public Policy and Governance’s Gender & Public Policy Workshops are a student-led attempt to address critical policy issues that remain absent from SPPG’s current curriculum. Last Friday the first Workshop welcomed two panels of discussants, on the topics of “Women and Leadership” and “Pay Equity.” The crowd at the event, whose significant capacity had to be expanded after spaces filled up quickly online, demonstrated a continuing demand to address gender issues facing policy makers.

The first panel, consisting of Fiona Crean (Ombudsman, City of Toronto), Maureen Jensen (Executive Director, Ontario Securities Commission), Alison Loat (Executive Director, Samara Canada), and Jennifer Bardahl (Professor at the Rotman School of Management), had the daunting task of addressing the barriers that women face in achieving leadership roles. The discussion addressed inequalities in the management of large organizations, focusing on how gender effects policy makers, rather than how policy making deals with gender. Speakers identified both ethical and strictly pragmatic perspectives on the issue. They argued that it is wrong that women should face barriers to advancement, but that there are is also an opportunity to improve productivity by ensuring that we do not arbitrarily exclude talented people from senior management.

The speakers also touched on professional experiences of subtle (and not so subtle) sexual harassment and oppression, as well as the latest empirical research on implicit bias in human resources. The current state of the struggles women face in leadership was summed up by Fiona Crean in the observation that while in the 1980s there was overt bias against women in organizations, it has now “gone underground and became systemic.”

One thread which ran through several speakers’ remarks was the role of transparency in fighting subtle forms of discrimination. The more an organization’s practices are measured, made explicit, and routinized, the less room there is for ad hoc decisions informed by implicit biases or the collegiality of the old boys club. Still, Crean was quick to add that we need “transparency plus.” In addition to clarity something more subtle and inventive is required: an eternal vigilance against premature ethical smugness. So long as these biases exist in the culture outside an organization, they are likely to reappear in subtler forms or with new targets—meaning we should not pat ourselves on the back too quickly.  As several panelists mentioned, the forms of bias which prevent women’s professional advancement are not used against women alone, but against all minority populations.

The second panel, which included Salina Szechtman (formerly of the Ontario Public Service), Jennifer Quito (Associate at Cavaluzzo Shilton Mcintyre and Cornish LLP) and Michael Baker (Professor at the School of Public Policy and Governance) reflected on a precise element of the policy toolkit for addressing gender inequality–less about policy makers and more about policy making.

In Salina Szechtman’s presentation, the audience learned about the history of pay equity law in Ontario. Jennifer Quito discussed some of the difficulties with implementing pay equity, specifically the different techniques employed to determine “value” for work. Michael Baker had the unenviable task–often reserved for economists–of providing a dissenting voice. Baker’s presentation introduced the skepticism economists have about policy instruments which change prices and the uncertain empirical evidence that female-dominated professions really are paid lower wages (in the technical sense of remuneration for hours worked) than male-dominated ones.

The discussion that followed both built upon and challenged Baker’s analysis. Assuming that pay equity is not the ideal solution to earnings inequality (as Baker asserted), are their other policy options (e.g. universal childcare) that can equalize the professional opportunities for women? Still, some members of the audience clearly doubted whether the question of the earnings-gap reality could be answered at all, considering the continuing unequal division of labour in the home.

The lesson to draw from the contrast between Baker and his interlocutors (or between economists and the rest of us) is two-fold. First, as future policy makers we should resist the temptation to fetishize particular policy tools. Like Deng Xiaoping once said, we should judge tools the same way we judge cats—by their efficacy at catching mice (solving policy problems) rather than by their colour (whether they conform to current fads or our ideological priors). At the same time, some of the push-back that Baker received on his remarks should remind us that a diversity of lenses should be employed when understanding policy issues. Ultimately, I do not think that there is room for employing tools that fail to find empirical support. At the same time, an open and multifaceted approach to policy dilemmas is necessary to determine which empirical questions are worth asking in the first place.

Michael Stacey is a Master of Public Policy Candidate (2014) at the School of Public Policy and Governance. He holds degrees in Social and Political Thought from York, and Contemporary Studies from the University of King’s College. His policy interests include economic development, urban policy, and the ethical and epistemological foundations of evidence-based policy making. 

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