Seen and Heard: An International Women’s Day Discussion on Gender Equality

James Nelson

On March 8th, I attended an International Women’s Day event hosted by The Hill Times in Ottawa to discuss gender equality and the role women play in policy making.  The International Women’s Day 2016 campaign theme, Pledge for Parity, follows the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2015, which estimates that the economic gap between men and women has shrunk by only 3 per cent in the past 10 years.  At this rate, it will take 117 years – until 2133 – to achieve global economic gender parity.  This post will highlight the Canadian experience, describing barriers women face to both labour market and political participation, and presenting concrete solutions for closing these gaps in Canada.

The panel discussion began with Julie Delahanty, Executive Director of Oxfam Canada, who presented an overview of Making Women Count: The Unequal Economics of Women’s Work, a report co-authored by Brittany Lambert of Oxfam Canada and Kate McInturff of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.  Their report notes that, while women’s increased participation in paid work over the last 30 years has benefitted economic growth globally, gender inequalities persist in the distribution of unpaid work and in the levels of access to work and wages.

During their presentations, Ms. Lambert and Ms. McInturff discussed the root causes barring women’s full access to the labour market.  These include:

  • the burden on women to do unpaid domestic and caregiving work which, in Canada, is exacerbated by women filling the gaps left by federal and provincial government cuts to public health and social services;
  • social expectations about the kind of work women should do, evidenced by the unequal distribution of work between Canadian men and women, and women’s continued over-representation in minimum-wage jobs; and
  • the undervaluation of women’s paid work across all sectors and education levels, given that, in 2011, women working full time and full year in Canada earned on average 72 per cent of what men earned – down from 74.4 per cent in 2009 – and that Canadian women with university degrees earn from 10 to 30 per cent less than their male peers, depending on their age cohort.

Ms. Lambert and Ms. McInturff presented their report’s proposed solutions “to eliminate the gender gap [in Canada and] redefine growth as a force with the potential to lift men and women, together, toward a better future.”  These include, but are not limited to:

  • Financing public services to reduce unpaid work and expand paid opportunities
    • Increase public funding for childcare in order to support mothers who want to return to the workforce and spend less of their income on childcare; and
    • Increase public funding for elder care, as past cuts have created inadequacies and resulted in the temporary foreign migration of women to Canada who work in poorly paid and precarious caregiver jobs.
  • Protecting workers by ensuring access to decent employment opportunities
  • Promoting women’s rights by addressing social norms and power relations
    • Following the Government of Manitoba’s lead, introduce legislation to give survivors of domestic violence the right to time away from work without fear of losing their job.

Also highlighted in the report, and briefly touched upon during the event’s Q&A, was the even greater inequality faced by aboriginal, immigrant, racialized, and disabled women due to the intersecting lines of discrimination in Canada.  The panelists noted the importance of ensuring minority representation at all parts of the policy process.  Anita Vandenbeld, the Member of Parliament for Ottawa West-Nepean who has worked as a senior advisor to the United Nations, recounted this anecdote: following the publication of a report, UN Women was asked why it did not address women with disabilities; their response was that not one person on the research committee had a disability, so it was overlooked.  Ms. Vandenbeld stressed the importance of ensuring full representation around any discussion and decision tables.

In addition to labour market participation, the event covered what Nancy Peckford, National Spokesperson for Equal Voice, called: “the political equality gap.”  Today, Canada has an outspoken feminist Prime Minister who formed the country’s first gender-equal cabinet, and Canadians elected 88 female Members of Parliament who make up 26 per cent of the House of Commons.  However, just as the World Economic Forum estimates when the global economic gap will close, Ms. Peckford told the audience that, at the rate observed over the past five federal elections, the House of Commons will not reach gender parity for 90 years – or until 2106.  Internationally, Ms. Vandenbeld noted that Canada currently ranks lower than Rwanda, Cuba, and Iraq in the percentage of women sitting in the lower House.

Ms. Vandenbeld went on to say that when women are leaders and in positions of power, girls see something they can emulate; this sentiment was echoed by the Prime Minister:

Female leaders – including those women I am proud to sit with in the cabinet and in Parliament – help diminish barriers by providing other women and girls with visible role models.”

Ms. Vandenbeld discussed the importance of female politicians sharing their knowledge, experience, and lessons learned in order to help other women successfully enter politics, and highlighted her work with the International Knowledge Network of Women in Politics, a multi-partner international network to promote women’s political participation.  She noted that her successful political campaign drew on lessons learned from her vast international experience, including her time working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where she established a political party program during the November 2011 Congolese elections.

To close the event, the panel was asked how to ensure diverse representation, particularly around decision tables and in the House of Commons.  Ms. Peckford spoke about the importance of making conscious and methodological choices to ensure diverse representation, particularly among women.  Ms. McInturff noted leaders’ responsibility to mentor people from diverse backgrounds so that their replacements raise different questions and propose different solutions.  Lastly, Ms. Vandenbeld stressed that political leaders in particular ought to proactively reach out and ask talented people from diverse backgrounds to get involved in politics.

 

James Nelson is a graduate of the Master of Public Policy program at the School of Public Policy and Governance.  He also holds an Honours BSocSc in International Development and Globalization from the University of Ottawa.  He is currently a Policy and Research Analyst with the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner of Canada, and has previously worked at Health Canada and the Institute for Democratic Governance, a policy research and advocacy organization in Ghana.  His interests include good governance, global education policy, and sustainable development.

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