Why budget 'gender statements' are a bad idea

Rather than promoting shared values, they curate differences—part of a political trend that's now wreaking havoc in the U.S.

Budget 2017 at the Shaw Centre in Ottawa March 22, 2017. (Photograph by Blair Gable)

Budget 2017 at the Shaw Centre in Ottawa March 22, 2017. (Photograph by Blair Gable)

The federal budget is one of a few national events shared annually and at the same time by all Canadians. It ought to be a moment of commonality from coast to coast. So why is Ottawa trying to turn it into yet another excuse to obsess over our differences?

This year’s budget version is notable for being the first to include a Gender Statement—an appendix that purports to examine how the budget will affect the genders differently. This has been celebrated widely as evidence Ottawa has finally grown in to its feminist credentials. From now on, the country’s fiscal plan will be scrutinized for its particular impact on women.

READ MORE: The hope and hype of a ‘gender-based’ budget

All this sounds very progressive and inclusive. And, of course, budgets have always been judged on their effect on different groups. Is the budget good for Quebec? Or Bay Street? Former prime minister Stephen Harper encouraged voters to take an even narrower view with his budgetary innovations: Is this budget good for families with a kid in soccer whose mom is a volunteer firefighter?

But despite its claim of bringing greater clarity to gender issues, the Gender Statement threatens real damage to national cohesion. Rather than delivering a balanced view of how men and women experience life in different ways, it appears to have become an exercise in ignoring men.

Take, for example, now-familiar complaints that female students are poorly represented in university-level Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) programs. “Women account for less than 30 per cent of STEM students and professions,” decries the Gender Statement. This statistic may be worthy of some thought—but is it the biggest gender issue on campus? Consider that women currently constitute 58 per cent of all university graduates country-wide, and enrolment in some key programs—education and health sciences, for example—is now 75 per cent women. This suggests major gender discrepancies, as well as big problems for the employability of young men in the near future. But you won’t hear about it in the Gender Statement.

READ MORE: Why federal budgets should focus on gender equality

(Another example of official blindness to the disappearance of men at university can be seen in Queen’s University’s annual Applicant Equity Census. Aboriginal people, the census tells us, comprise 2.2 per cent of first-year registered students; persons with a disability, 13.5 per cent; transgender, 0.8 per cent; non-heterosexual, 8.9 per cent. And female—65.4. While women are rapidly becoming a dominant majority on campus, schools seem pathologically incapable of considering men, who are minority groups in some disciplines, to be worthy of equity attention.)

The Gender Statement also laments the fact off-reserve Indigenous women perform poorly on an OECD literacy test. Indigenous men actually did worse on this test than women, but this bit of trivia isn’t mentioned. The only reference to Indigenous men in the entire document is in noting Indigenous women are more likely to be a victim of violence than men; but is it not also relevant that Indigenous men face a murder rate three times that of Indigenous women? Results that might present men to be at a disadvantage in comparison with women are habitually ignored by the Gender Statement.

“In most cases, children still tend to reside primarily with their mother after divorce or separation of heterosexual couples,” it observes. As a result, Ottawa vows to step up its enforcement efforts to ensure men pay their fair share of family support. But this prompts the question as to why are men are so unsuccessful at winning custody battles. The fact men comprise the vast bulk of successful suicides is brushed aside by the argument women attempt suicide more frequently and are more often victims of family violence. Surely both suicide and family violence deserve greater attention.

Whatever its intentions, the practical result of the budget’s Gender Statement has been to set off a search for statistics bolstering the argument women experience poorer outcomes than men. This isn’t to say such circumstances don’t exist, or that they don’t merit attention. They surely do. But for an exercise meant to promote gender balance, the disregard for equally-poor male outcomes in other areas shouldn’t be so calculated or obvious. And it’s frankly insulting for a former stay-at-home dad such as myself to be told child care and parental leave are female issues. But if you drop family as the basis for budget analysis and insert gender in its place, that’s what you get.

The Gender Statement’s ultimate consequence is to promote a winner-take-all gender competition—a battle between the sexes to see who can muster the best (that is, worst) numbers in making their case for systemic discrimination. The mere fact I’m writing this now—the heresy of men’s rights notwithstanding—proves the point. Ottawa’s plan to expand its Gender Statement in future years to include new identities such as ethnicity, age and sexual orientation can only raise this contrived grievance-search to new, intersectional heights.

At this point, I’m reminded of Columbia University humanities professor Mark Lilla’s much-shared essay in the New York Times, The End of Identity Liberalism, in which he unpacked the destructive impact of the political fixation on gender, racial and sexual identities on the U.S. election.

“A generation of liberals and progressives [have become] narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups,” he writes. Such obsessive attention to self-identity eventually caused white, predominantly-male Americans to similarly think of themselves as a disadvantaged group, thereby putting Donald Trump in the White House. “Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it,” Lilla concludes, calling on liberals to spend more time promoting shared experiences and values, rather than curating differences.

Surely this is the fire we’re playing at in Canada as well with the budget’s Gender Statement. It encourages Canadians to consider the country’s fiscal plan not in its broad sweep and affect on the country, but rather through the lens of narrowly-defined identity categories. And to succeed in this context, it becomes necessary to elevate whatever disadvantages your group might experience while ignoring those of competing groups.

This might work for a while. But eventually everyone will start to demand their special moment. Men might even wonder why they’re asked to pay 66 per cent of all taxes, while their problems get zero per cent of Ottawa’s sympathy and attention. And then what?

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