Women made gains in 2012 but don’t declare victory just yet
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
December 26, 2012. Rosemary Speirs
How could we let 2012 go by without speculating on who’s winning the gender wars — a topic that got a major workout in North America in the passing year?
The most provocative debate was south of the border, where the numbers of working women surpass those of working men, and women graduates far outnumber their male classmates at university.
In her provocative book, The End of Men, Hanna Rosin announced a “radical shift” is under way that will sweep away the “last artifacts” of male predominance — such as higher wages and men’s grasp on the executive suites — and women will become the standard by which success is measured.
Liza Mundy coined the word “breadwomen” in The Richer Sex: How the new Majority of Female Breadwinners is Transforming, Sex, Love and Family.
In this country, The Canadian Press had already looked at the “dark side” of women’s apparent success in the workplace, quoting labour leaders who noted that the comparative upward trend for women reflected male job losses in industries such as manufacturing and natural resources. Today, the economy is still faltering but there are still slightly more men in the Canadian labour force than women.
The recession didn’t bite as deeply here, so while Canadian women’s workforce participation rose and pay rates improved, neither statistic suggests a Canada in which men are falling apart and women triumphing. Overall, men still make 25 per cent more than women.
The biggest positive news this year in the breeching of gender barriers has been the choice of five women as premiers — Kathy Dunderdale in Newfoundland, Pauline Marois in Quebec, Alison Redford in Alberta, Christy Clark in British Columbia, Eva Aariak in Nunavut. The last two must face election or re-election soon, which could reduce the total, but there’s the real possibility a woman will succeed Dalton McGuinty in Ontario early in 2013.
At the federal level, more women than ever are sitting in Parliament, but most of the time you wouldn’t know it. In the divisive world of Conservative Stephen Harper’s prime ministership, female solidarity has evaporated. The 76 women sitting in the House of Commons make up 24.7 per cent of that body, enough to make a ruckus, but only if they stood together on women’s issues.
Harper’s government has cut funding to women’s organizations, withdrawn Canadian support for family planning in developing nations and permitted Conservative MPs to introduce bills aimed at preventing sex selection of babies by restricting abortion — with the support Conservative women.
With the story so often disheartening, younger women who don’t see themselves as high rollers are tuning out. At a recent dinner party I listened to remarks I’ve started hearing from many younger women, this time from activist Tracee Smith, who said she refuses to read or listen to media stories about women’s advancement.
A recent release by the mentoring group Women of Influence showcased a list of the 25 “most powerful women in Canada,” several of them the presidents or vice-presidents of their companies. It didn’t excite Smith, a former bank development adviser, in the least.
“Who picks up those stories?” she asks. “I don’t.”
“Women may be vice-presidents now, but I still don’t see women getting the big high-profile assignments (a point confirmed by a recent Catalyst research study that found more women are corporate executives but they don’t get the ‘hot jobs’). Perhaps my generation will be able to change that, but I don’t think it will be changing anytime soon.”
Tracee’s world is the charitable organization she founded and now runs full-time, called Outside Looking In. The 34-year-old Cree from northern Ontario takes her team of professional dancers into northern First Nations communities to put kids through rigorous dance training, with the demand that their parents and teachers get involved, and the youngsters keep up their marks. The best performers get what may be their first experience outside their communities, dancing their joyous hip-hop at the St. Lawrence Centre every June for the past five years — giving their Toronto audience a glimpse into life in the far north.
Even less interested in the trials facing executive and professional women is 25-year-old Kavita Dogra, who like an increasing number of young Canadian women — new citizens or born here — comes from a culture (in her case India’s) where women face sexual violence, abuse and marginalization.
Sensitized by her own experience, she decided she could not sit by and created We Talk Women. Dogra blogs weekly on her website about what is happening to women in other countries, about trafficking, rape and genital mutilation. She talks about the things Canadians can do to help not just overseas but at home, because trafficking of girls and sexual abuse are common here, too.
“I’m not just a Canadian. I am a human being in a global world. It is not just about my rights: On a global scale we have to advocate for all girls and women.”
Kavita holds a full-time job at a large environmental organization, and a part-time job at the Royal Conservatory of Music, somehow juggling the blogging, editing and speechmaking that are just part of her volunteer role for We Talk Women.
She says the workload is bearable: What’s harder is trying to convince Canadian-born women not to turn away when the news is too awful — Pakistani schoolgirl activist shot in the head by the Taliban; young woman in India mutilated in an acid attack for standing up against male bullies.
“It is hard to persuade them not to back off, to be inspired to do something,” she says of her peers. “But my biggest job in We Talk Women is to break the illusion that these things don’t happen here.”
For women, 2012 was a year of mixed messages. Despite the hoopla about men failing and women triumphing, equality still eludes the female half of Canadians who mostly remain segregated in the lowest paying jobs and carry the burden of child-rearing.
Distraught over the humiliation and abuse suffered by women elsewhere; distanced from the power struggles at the top in their own country; younger Canadian women face a frantic future.
Theirs is the generation closest to surpassing men — adding responsibility for breadwinning to all the paid and unpaid work they already do.
Rosemary Speirs is a former Queen’s Park and Ottawa columnist for the Star, and founder of Equal Voice, dedicated to the election of more women.
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