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A crash course in how the feds could improve gender equality

Anne Kingston: The real lessons in a ranking of best cities for women: that the gender gap persists across Canada—and the solutions are staring us in the face
Demonstrators attend the Women’s March to protest President Donald Trump, in Montreal, Canada on January 21, 2017. Thousands of people gather in Montreal in support of women’s rights as thousands are doing the same in Washington, D.C. after the inauguration of Donald Trump. (Amru Salahuddien/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Demonstrators attend the Women's March to protest President Donald Trump, in Montreal, Canada on January 21, 2017. Thousands of people gather in Montreal in support of women's rights as thousands are doing the same in Washington, D.C. after the inauguration of Donald Trump. (Amru Salahuddien/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Thousands of people gathered in Montreal in support of women’s rights in January, as thousands did in Washington, D.C. after the inauguration of Donald Trump (Amru Salahuddien/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released its annual analysis, The Best and Worst Places to be a Woman in Canada: “The Gender Gap in Canada’s 25 Biggest Cities. The study, now in its fourth year, is destined to garner headlines; people love to know where they rank in the big picture. Certainly a glance at the results might inspire women who live in Victoria, Gatineau, Que., and Hamilton, Ont. (ranked first, second and third, respectively) to celebrate. Likewise, women in Barrie, Ont., Oshawa, Ont., and Windsor, Ont. (ranked at the bottom at 23rd, 24th, and 25th) might consider plotting their escape.

Not so fast. A deeper read of the report indicates that yes, some places may be better for women, but there’s no escaping the gender gap. Inequities exist right across the country, Kate McInturff, a senior researcher at CCPA, tells Maclean’s. For one, Canadian women are underemployed (more than 670,000 women work part-time involuntarily). Women earn less than men, even when they have the same education, experience and work in the same field. Women also put in an extra 10 hours of unpaid work, on average, often due to of inadequate childcare. Females are also more likely than males to be the victims of violent crime, according to Statistics Canada.

McInturff puts it in perspective: “This isn’t about whose city is richest and whose economy is best and whose is doing worse. This is about whether men and women have equal access to goods and well-being compared to each other, given what is available in that city.” She’s interested in trends, even though they don’t feed into the scores of the individual cities: “Are things getting better? Is the wage gap getting smaller? Is the employment gap getting smaller? Are poverty rates going up or down?” she says. “It’s to provide context and to make the point that we really aren’t seeing progress in some cases at the local level; we’re actually seeing things getting worse.”

McInturff, director of CCPA’s initiative on gender equality and public policy, Making Women Count, assessed a number of variables (access to economic security, personal security, education, health, and leadership positions) employing methodology used by major international gender-equity studies; she also added a “violence against women” category. Statistics on this at the local level are poor, she says, limited to police reporting, which is notoriously incomplete; only one in 20 sexual assaults are reported; of that paltry five per cent, 19 per cent are deemed “unfounded,” meaning the police decided there wasn’t a crime to investigate. Still, it’s a crucial indicator: CCPA’s studies indicate violence against women affects over a million Canadian women.

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“Statistics will never be a substitute for the full experience of lives lived,” McInturff writes. But they do provide a roadmap: both insight into where fault lines exist—and where policy helps. In conversation with Maclean’s, McInturff explains some of the report’s findings and what policy changes, in her opinion, would  make Canada a better place for all women to live.

Why Gatineau ranks second and Ottawa, a 15-minute drive away, ranks 11th:

“Gatineau does significantly better than Ottawa in electing women to office at all levels and putting them in leadership positions,” McInturff says. “Ottawa needs to step up.” Both cities benefit from a large public-sector employer—the federal government—which helps with economic security, she says. “More women are in full-time work; the wage gap is smaller. Also, the public sector is unionized, she points out; extensive research across high-income countries shows the presence of a union makes a big difference in narrowing the wage gap and the employment gap.”

Why Quebec outperforms in terms of the gender gap:

Five words: universal accessible and affordable childcare. “It’s the number one lever that the government has to improve women’s economic well-being,” McInturff says. Since Quebec instituted its subsidized child-care system in 1997, over 140,000 single mothers have moved out of poverty, she says, adding that access to daycare is seen to be a reason why women’s employment in Quebec held steady after the 2008-09 global recession, while it declined in other provinces. She points to a recent OCED paper that indicates that, outside of Quebec, Canadian women experience a net loss in household income when they go back to work and put their youngsters in child care.

Currently, the federal government is at the end of negotiations with the provinces for child-care funding. “It is encouraging that they’ve committed funding,” McInturff says. “It is discouraging that they’re not as ambitious as they could be and are not aiming for a universally subsidized national child-care program.”

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Quebec also has proactive pay equity legislation on the table, McInturff says. At the federal level, a special parliamentary committee on pay equity issued its report a year ago; the government committed to tabling legislation in 2018. “I don’t know why we’re waiting for 2018, but better late than never,” McInturff says. “The coming year will show us if the government is prepared to put forward policies to address those gaps.”

Five actions the government could take to improve gender equality:

  1.  Allocate significant funds to women’s organizations. The $18 million currently allocated to Status of Women Canada annually is “puny,” says McInturff; it amounts to one one-hundredth of one per cent of total federal program spending and is a figure that hasn’t changed in a decade. “It’s great the [Liberal] government said, ‘We’re going to fund advocacy,’ ” she says. “But there’s no new money.” She’d like to see funding rise to $100 million annually. It’s affordable, she says: “I calculated the difference it would make in our debt-to-GDP ratio and you would have to go out many, many decimal points to see that even have minimal impact on our economic indicators. History shows that funding women’s organizations is the best means to increase gender equality and improve women’s lives, McInturff points out. A $100-million fund in the Netherlands helped reshape public policy at the national level in 46 countries, influenced local governments and improved the lives of hundreds of thousands of women. It’s a model that is easily transferrable to Canada, she says. The country should employ the lessons learned from its successful feminist foreign policy in the ‘90s domestically, she adds. CIDA’s funding of women’s programs saw seismic changes, she points out, including Paraguay criminalizing domestic violence. Canada once led the world, McInturff says. The expertise is still there: “Some of those people are still in government.”
  2. Implement policies that reflect the findings of the last budget. The fact the government used gender-based analysis in its last budget is “fantastic,” McInturff says: “But the analysis is just what’s happening, not what we need to do.” Women work in different occupational sectors than men and policies need to reflect that, she says. For one, women don’t benefit as much from the infrastructure spending that tends to be a budget centrepiece. “I’m in favour of infrastructure spending,” she says. “But we need parallel strategies that invest in occupations where women earn a living wage—health care and social services. Many occupations dominated by women, including retail and hospitality, tend to involve very low wages, she says, so attention should be placed there. The fact the government is investing money in home care to to ease pressure on women is great, McInturff says. “But I’d love to see this government say, ‘We want to see it come with a living wage for those health care workers.’ ”
  3. Lower the threshold of hours worked to qualify for Employment Insurance. This could improve women’s lives overnight, McInturff says. Women are far more likely than men to work part-time, which makes them less likely to qualify for EI, she notes, adding that because of the wage gap, the EI benefits they are qualified for tend to be lower. The government is investing a lot of money in innovation and starting up small- and medium-sized enterprises, she notes, which entails making real efforts to try to ensure those enterprises are run by women. But there’s another hard fact: women with small start-ups may not take a salary for themselves in the first year; if they’re out of a job, they have a hard time qualifying. In that moment of need, they need more support, McInturff says: “Otherwise you get this cycle where if you don’t qualify for EI, or the EI benefit is small, women take the first job they can get. And that job might not be full-time or in a unionized workplace.”
  4. Implement national paternity leave. Quebec offers five weeks of just-for-men paternity leave, McInturff notes. The result: 76 per cent of men in Quebec take leave, compared to 26 per cent in the rest of Canada. It’s positive for fathers, children and families, she says, with benefits for mothers that include a more equal sharing of unpaid work caring for children.
  5. Establish a national action plan to end violence against women. Violence against women—by the government’s own analysis—has an economic impact of $12.2 billion a year, McInturff points out. It shows no sign of abating: Incidence of every other type of violent crime has decreased in the past two decades, but rates of sexual assault against women remain unchanged. In July, the government announced a “gender-based violence strategy.” Details are scant, McInturff notes: only one page on Status of Women Canada’s website. “We need a national action plan to end violence,” she says, “not just to address it or discuss it or analyze it, but to actually end it.”

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Finally, why women in Windsor have reason to be hopeful:

One rationale for The Best and Worst Places to be a Woman in Canada report, McInturff says, is to provide a platform for organizations in these cities to talk to their communities, and raise issues with municipal governments. “We have this huge pool of insight and passion in organizations that are underfunded and understaffed, she says. “I don’t want people to think no one is working on this; communities are full of organizations trying to make their cities better.” In the report, she cites the documentary Her Windsor, filled with inspiring stories of women affecting social change in the border city. As a smaller, close-knit community, they were able to make changes that might have been harder if in Toronto or Vancouver or Montreal, McInturff says: “What women are saying in Windsor is that with a little more support and more resources, we have the opportunity to be a great place for women to live.” As this roadmap of a study makes clear, it’s a mantra that applies to the country as well.