Seen and Heard: Gender Analysis in Policy Making at SPPG

Julia Salzmann 

Last week’s Gender and Public Policy Workshop: Gender Analysis in Policy Making was the second instalment of a student-led series at the School of Public Policy and Governance designed to address the growing importance of the relationship between gender and public policy. After a sold-out Workshop in the Fall semester that focussed on women in leadership roles and pay equity, this month’s event addressed applying a gender analysis lens to policy formation. The workshop’s panel included Sylvia Bashevkin (Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto), Debbie Douglas (Executive Director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants), Kara Santokie (Project Director at the Toronto Women’s City Alliance) and Uzma Shakir (Director of the Equity and Diversity Office at the City of Toronto).

As I entered the workshop room, I immediately noticed that the majority of the workshop participants were female. Being a woman in my early twenties and not familiar with the use of a gender lens in policy making, I felt overwhelmed and intimidated. I hoped that by the end of the panel I would have a grasp on the importance of this policy tool.

To set the stage, a definition of what a gender analysis is was given to the workshop participants. The gender analysis lens used for the workshop was defined using a modified definition from the Vibrant Communities report  produced by the Status of Women in Canada. It described gender analysis as “a tool or lens used by policy makers for examining the differences between people of different genders, the different levels of power they hold, their differing needs, constraints and opportunities, and the impact of these differences on their lives.”

To me, this made sense. I am aware that the majority of senior management and those in decision-making roles are men and that they may not automatically consider the effects certain decisions have on those who do not identify as male. For example, when designing public buildings, restrooms for men and women are always included but spaces for transgendered individuals may not be. In this situation, I understood that the application of a gender analysis is quite useful. We were off to a good start. However, as the panelists began to speak, I questioned some of their arguments.

Dr. Sylvia Bashevkin asked us to imagine a city where young skateboarders just barely avoid the elderly woman making her way along the sidewalk, or new mothers are glared at as they enter the subway with a large stroller that nestles their child. As Bashevkin points out, if you spend time in Toronto’s downtown core, these scenarios are not that far-fetched. What did strike me as unlikely, however, is that these conditions are not already considered when planning and developing urban space.

I was also confused as these seemed more like age-related policy issues. Can the argument not be made that larger sidewalks would benefit all elderly people and that wider subway entrances and trains would benefit anyone pushing around a young child? Should we not then be more accommodating towards society’s younger and older populations?

The next two presenters, Kara Santokie and Debbie Douglas, also discussed gender-sensitive planning but did not explain how their proposed policies would directly impact specific genders as opposed to people in general.

And then Uzma Shakir took to the floor. She explained that in her research surrounding job placement of new, immigrant families, even when both the husband and wife had identical professional qualifications, the wife would seek precarious employment to support the family while her husband would pursue Canadian re-qualification. Within two years, the woman would have lost her chance at a professional career altogether. In her work, Shakir only encountered a single case in which the husband opted to stay at home while his wife continued her Canadian career.

Shakir emphasized that we needed to employ “targeted universalism” to maximize society’s potential. She explained that if policies are designed to target society’s most marginalized individuals–single-parent households, the elderly and the impoverished, among others–everyone will universally benefit. If you decide to make sidewalks wider for the elderly to walk at a slower pace without being trampled over, not only will they benefit, but so too will the hipster skateboarders as they zip along towards the nearest Starbucks.

Shakir’s logic helped me to understand the role of diversity in policy making. However, as the workshop ended I glanced around the room and saw all of the women slowly making their way towards the exit. Aside from a handful of brave male students (who did seem actively engaged), I couldn’t help but wonder if the panelists had spent the last 90 minutes preaching to the choir. If targeted universalism is key to the creation of better policies for everyone, where were all the men?

Julia Salzmann is a 2015 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the University of Toronto. She holds a BHS (Specialized Honours) in Health Policy from York University. Her policy interests include health, economic, and Canadian Indigenous policy.

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