Invest in Women, Accelerate Progress

Bev Weidman, CFUW Vernon,  written in recognition of and support for International Women’s Day March 8, 2024

International Women’s Day celebrates the achievements of women around the world, both individually and corporately, in all areas of society.  We are reminded of the difficulties and obstacles that women have faced in the pursuit of gender equality in the past, and the challenges that still exist today.  As well, we look into the future with hope for a time when women will attain equal participation with men in society for the betterment of all.

For most of history, women were denied the power to participate in making decisions that affected their lives, not only in the home and family, but also in regard to legal rights, such as inheritance, property ownership, divorce, education, and representation in government.  In fact, not only were women not allowed to own property, they were regarded as property that belonged first to their fathers, and then to their husbands.  We are reminded of this in a wedding tradition that is often seen in wedding ceremonies.  The father of the bride walks down the aisle with his daughter and hands her to the groom.  Today, this gesture is a loving farewell from father to daughter, but in the past it meant transferring ownership of the bride from her father literally to her husband.  Regrettably, the attitude that women are objects to be owned persists in some parts of the world and even in Canada.   In Canada, it wasn’t until 1964 that a married woman could open a bank account in her own name without her husband’s permission and signature.  That is within the lifetime of many of you readers.  However, unmarried women were granted a number of rights equal to men’s rights. 

The concept of gender equality implies that women and men hold equal power to make decisions regarding their rights.  However, for most of history, women were excluded from voting in elections and from holding office in the various levels of government that made laws that affected them.  Yet, no one can deny that decisions in the political realm affect women as much as they do men.  In Canada, women were granted the right to vote and hold office in different years in each province between the years of 1916 and 1934, but that is barely 100 years ago.  However, they still could not be appointed to the Senate because they were not “persons” in the law and only qualified persons could be appointed.  It was only in 1929 that women became “persons”, although Indigenous and Asian women were still not included. 

Through the centuries women were treated as though they were weaker, less intelligent, and less capable than men, and therefore required men to make decisions for them.  This, in spite of the fact that women often managed farms and businesses when men were off participating in a war or on a trading trip, and that lower class  women worked at hard physical labour, as well as caring for the family and running their household.  Women’s physical strength may be less than that of men’s, but women’s intellect and capability are comparable.  During WWII women stepped into many physically and intellectually demanding roles (even Princess Elizabeth, who later reigned as Queen Elizabeth II, worked as a mechanic against her parents’ wishes) while men performed war duties, but when the war ended, the women were relegated back to housework.

In the present day, women enjoy parity with men in many areas of opportunity, and in some cases, exceed men.  For example, more women (55%) have achieved a university education versus men (49%),  but women still earn less than men in comparable jobs, 89 cents for every dollar a man earns.  Measures such as $10 a day daycare allow women to work outside the home while their children receive quality care.  Such daycare is still a work in progress and is not yet universally available.  As well, this quality care is provided mainly by other women, whose wages are still low for a job that is one of the most important in our society – caring for the children who will be our future leaders, responsible for the earth and all who live on it.

In the world of business, not only do women’s wages lag behind those of men, but women wield less power.   Women’s Executive Network, which tracks women’s representation at the executive level, revealed that in 2022 corporate boards were comprised of 34% women.  Only about 30% of companies surveyed by various organizations have women in the so-called C-suite.    That 30% glass ceiling also applies to politics. 

In the area of politics, studies of women’s representation on Canadian municipal councils, in provincial legislatures, and in Parliament have revealed that about 30% of members are female and has plateaued there, although the total population of Canada is almost equally female/male.  Famously, the federal Cabinet has almost achieved parity with 19 out of 40 ministries headed by women.  One deterrent to women running for office and being elected might be the number of misogynist, demeaning, threatening messages and acts that women endure at all levels of public service.  Alexandra Mendes, MP, said in 2018, “I think it’s part of something that is deeply in the male mentality, this sort of undermining of women’s capabilities and talents ….”   However, credit should be given to organizations like The White Ribbon Campaign and The Moosehide Campaign, which, along with others, are working hard to eliminate misogyny from our society. 

In spite of women’s advancement toward parity with men in many ways, Canada has fallen behind on international indicators, which does not bode well for the future.  Canada’s standing on the Global Gender Gap Index 2023 shows a drop from 25th place in 2022 to 30th in 2023, and on the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development survey, Canada dropped 6 places in the standings between 2016 to 2022.  The Economist’s Glass Ceiling Index reveals that while most OECD countries lost ground during the epidemic, many have recovered to pre-pandemic levels.  However, Canada has not.

So what do we have to look forward to in the future?  According to the World Economic Forum, progress toward gender parity globally is slowing or stalling, and the estimated time to achieving full parity remains at approximately 130 years.  Without a change in attitude and behaviour toward women,  improvement in women’s status will proceed very slowly.  In our neighbouring country to the south, a former President, who is regarded as a role model by many people, has denigrated women, used demeaning language, and has been accused and convicted of sexual abuse.  With role models like this for boys and men, women will not advance very easily or quickly.  In the future, women will have to continue to work very hard to achieve parity with men.   On the other hand, there are also many men who are working with and for women to change the culture so that women will one day gain full and equal participation in society. 

Gayle E. Smith, CEO of ONE Campaign, which works toward  “a fair and dignified future for everyone,” said in a Forbes magazine article, “ …let us dedicate that same energy, passion, intensity and creativity that mankind is capable of towards achieving the equality that women have been reaching towards for generations. Because, as we say at ONE, “no one is equal until all of us are equal.”