Why Gender Equity Should Still Be A Political Issue

Many of the following issues are sources of anxiety for feminists. Not just because of their distressing affect on people, but because they are consistently ignored and declared irrelevant or nonexistent in politics.

This dismissal is one of the most common tools used to silence those who push for gender equity issues to be addressed.

It feels like a hand on the forehead, like a big taunting bully, and I don’t like it.

I spoke with Prof. Debra Graham at Carleton University, who states, “Backlash is evidence that there is a shift in power. The typical reaction for groups that lose power or stability is that they lash out. As we see more equality legally, for example men and women can now access childcare leave, there will be hesitations to take change too far.”

These persistent inequities are maintained to privilege those in positions of power, but that is not a good enough reason (nor is there ever a good enough reason), to perpetuate the issues outlined below.

Acting Out Gender Roles

First, we need to understand why gender is an issue in the first place.

Gender plays a role in every facet of society: immigration, poverty, the environment, social policy, politics, religion, education. It is so ingrained within the foundations of a society that the issues stemming from constructing and enforcing social identities often becomes overwhelming. We don’t know where to start, so we opt not to start at all.

But gender equity needs to be on the political agenda because the personal is political. This saying began during the second wave of feminism, and it is still relevant today.

Gender is one of the biggest ways in which our society is divided and controlled: it affects everything from what bathrooms we use, access to social services, and the clothing we wear, to assumptions on the capabilities (or inabilities) of an individual, which affects which jobs they have access to or how legitimate their concerns are considered.

For men, gender affects their behaviour and maintains immense social pressures in the workplace and at home. Men are expected to display hegemonic masculinity in which they’re only validated as real men if they are aggressive, in a position of power or dominance, muscular, objective, and unemotional. These characteristics are thus valued in a male-dominated government.

For women, it is socially expected that they will possess typically feminine characteristics: they are expected to be passive, weak, emotional, nurturing, and submissive. This limits women largely to the private sphere, which poses many risks.

First, keeping women in the private sphere allows policy-makers to assume that the issues they face are out of their jurisdiction and therefore not a matter of concern to the state, when in reality it is the lack of attention from the government that maintains issues like violence against women and sexual abuse.

Second, it creates barriers in accessing the public sphere, including making women work harder for jobs, the creation of the “double-day” in which women are expected to still do housework if they choose to work outside of the home, and maintains social assumptions on the capabilities, wants, and needs of women.

Combating these normative expectations provides more freedom for individuals to behave as they choose, to seek the jobs that they want, and live lives they find personally fulfilling.  For other gender identified people, the incredibly limited access to resources like medical care, neutral bathrooms, housing, and jobs continues to keep transgendered, two-spirited, or gender queer people in poverty and greatly affects their physical and mental wellbeing.

The Government’s Role

The government controls our personal lives both directly and indirectly.

Directly, it has control over how women operate within the public sphere through its delegation of services like childcare, affordable housing, and equal pay for work of equal value.

Indirectly, the government as it stands today maintains patriarchal values and perpetuates social assumptions as to what women should be doing with their lives in the way that they provide the direct services, or not.

For example, the Harper government and Conservative party possess traditional patriarchal values about gender roles in Canadian society. This is obvious through their lack of interest in women’s issues and lack of support for gender-focused organizations and activities.

The Harper government has closed down or withdrawn funding from numerous women’s organizations, which suggests that women’s issues no longer exist, or that they are not important. The lack of interest in creating policies on affordable childcare, equal pay for work of equal value, or access to maternal health services for all Canadians, shows a low value on women’s participation in the public and even on their very physical wellbeing.

Gender equity is still a political issue because inequalities remain amongst the sexes at both a social and political level.

Socially, the government has the ability to provide the resources necessary to ensure people of all gender identities have the same opportunities. These resources are still inadequate or non-existent.

Politically, a properly representative government should be composed equally of men and women (although, if we’re going to get technical, women makes up 51 per cent of the Canadian population), or at least of feminist voices, and should make efforts to represent those of other gender expressions.

If women make up more than half of the population, then they should no longer be considered a “special interest group.”

Women and men are still treated very differently in Canadian society (not to mention around the world), and until they are treated with the same respect, have access to social services and other facets of society on the same level, and can exercise their rights to the same degree, women’s issues and gender equity will continue to be of a concern to all of us.

Policy Background

I spoke with Monica Cullum of the National Council on the Status of Women. When asked what policies the Canadian government currently has, she replied, “Quite frankly, I’m not sure. This government has scrapped childcare, court challenges, eliminated funding for advocacy, down-sized Status of Women Canada. There is no evidence that there’s any kind of gender-based impact or examination on policy. The only words I can speak are in the negative as there are no positive policies.”

The Status of Women still exists, but it has had to reduce the number of offices across the country to only 5. This happened as soon as the Conservative Party formed a minority government. Organizations like FAFIA lost their funding as well.

This government also eliminated the court challenges program in which women could challenge legislation. Women’s organizations do not have the funds to challenge the Supreme Court themselves, which limits their ability to fight against oppressive legislation.  These actions created yet another barrier for feminist work.

The Conservative government also revoked funding for advocacy, and only funds applied projects. How is society supposed to change and how are women supposed to be justified in their growing participation if there is only support for reactionary services?

The government needs to be more proactive in producing change.

The Canadian government does a good job at hypocritically criticizing gender inequities in other countries. Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada states that “Canada is a world leader in the promotion and protection of women’s rights and gender equality. These issues are central to Canada’s foreign and domestic policies. Canada is committed to the view that gender equality is not only a human rights issue, but is also an essential component of sustainable development, social justice, peace, and security.”

It goes on to state that women must be treated equally in order to foster social development. CIDA lists eight international projects for women’s issues, including a presence in Bolivia, Haiti, Pakistan and Vietnam, and yet we cannot achieve gender equity on our own soil.

The federal government has published reports about Inuit and Aboriginal societies, in which they analyze gender issues including domestic violence, healthcare, housing, and politics, yet there is very little material on dominant groups in society. This contributes to the marginalization and stigmatization of already oppressed groups of women.

So Why Does All Of This Matter?

A Breakdown of Current Gender Equity Issues in Canada

These are only some of the issues that need to be addressed by our government.

Violence against women

Sexual Assault is an extremely important issue. This has been prominent in the feminist activist community at Carleton University, with numerous sexual assaults occurring on campus and little adequate response from the university itself.

There are over 500 missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada.

Likening the punishments for drug offences to the punishments for domestic violence or sexual assault shows how little we value women’s bodies and lives.

The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women is still ignored by the Canadian government.

Family violence is a huge issue in Canada that has significant gender issues. The rate of family related sexual violence is four times higher for girls than for boys. The spousal homicide rate is three times higher for women than men. Men are typically the perpetrators of violence, stemming largely from the socialization they receive in Canadian society. Part of the solution is de-feminizing rehabilitative efforts.

Childcare

Childcare was presented late in the Liberal government under Paul Martin, but scrapped immediately when Harper came into power. Childcare needs to be of quality, affordable, and accessible.

Housing

There is currently no national housing strategy in Canada. This impacts women with disabilities, Aboriginal women and women of other racial minorities, and poor women.

The Feminization of Poverty

Simply put, when women are poor, children are poor. Child poverty has not improved in Canada. We need to recognize that women need to work and that Canadian families require two incomes. Once we recognize this, we need to make this possible.

Pay Equity

There is a persistent gender gap in the amount someone is paid for work of equal value, solely based on whether they identify as male or female.

Last year, the Supreme Court of Canada heard a case that brought forward by the Public Service Alliance of Canada against Canada Post claiming wage discrimination against women.

Legislation on pay equity is not consistent across the country. It varies according to province, but nationally, this is not deemed to be an issue.

Even women who are employed full-time, year-round, do not earn the same salary, even if they are university graduates. For example, women who graduate from the same engineering program in university receive only about 75% of the pay that men receive.

Job opportunities are limited for women, even though 52% of university graduates are women.

Women in Parliament

Canada is 47th in the world for female participation in national parliaments, including some of the poorest developing nations in the world like Rwanda, Uganda, Iraq and Afghanistan (may I remind you that we have been trying to “liberate the women” of Iraq and Afghanistan in many “peace-keeping” missions).

Parliament prides itself in having 25 per cent women, up from 22 per cent. This is the highest it’s been in the last decade, prior it was just above 30 per cent. The Conservative party has 17 per cent women; compared to the NDP which has 39% women. The NDP has been working on this since 1975 and has had policies that encourage women to participate. Therefore, the 25 per cent of women in Parliament is more thanks to the NDP than the Conservative majority.

And yet, women make up 51 per cent of the population, yet control only 25 per cent of the decision-making.

This past year, the appointment of Supreme Court judges revealed a gender gap: “The appointment of female judges has diminished to a trickle under the Harper government, dashing any hopes that equal gender representation is on the doorstep” – Globe and Mail

Only 8 women were appointed this year compared to 41 men. There are currently 356 female judges out of 1,117 federally appointed judges.

As the Toronto Star writes, “Although there have been great strides in equality among men and women in Canada since Agnes MacPhail became the first woman elected in the House of Commons in 1921, we have a long way to go before we achieve equality in political expression… how can Canada claim to be an equal-opportunity society when the demographics of our decision-makers are so out of proportion with the gender demographics of Canadian society?”

How Do We Fix This? 

We need to embrace feminism.

We need to use an equality rights framework within the current government.

We need to recognize that women’s rights and human rights are synonymous.

We need to recognize the gender-based impact of policies and programs as there is no good reason to ignore this part of the policy.

For example, finance has not analyzed their impact in a gender-based way, yet this has profound consequences. The federal government report states that “Budgets, however, are not gender neutral, they are “gender blind.”

Gender-blind budgets ignore the differing effects on women and men and on different groups of women and men. Gender-blind budgets do not consider that women and men have different roles, responsibilities and capabilities. They ignore the economic and social differences that exist between women and men.

For example, an income tax reduction may affect men and women differently given that income distribution among male and female-headed households differs with female-headed households being in the lower income bracket. It later states that Canada “has not yet carried out a gender-budget initiative at any level of government.”

We need to recognize that women have not yet “made it” and fight against backlash.

We need to support feminist organizations, such as: Equal Voice for women in parliament; social services like rape crisis centers, women’s shelters; Bring back the Miss G Project and introduce feminist ideology into the educational system at a younger age.

We need to write about not only women’s stories and their own experiences, but about organizations and efforts to support women’s issues, like the Women Speak Out group. This group is in Toronto and focuses on all sorts of women’s issues, and then discusses everything from the history of feminism to conflict resolution.

We need to bring feminist perspectives into education.

We need to stop victim-blaming and shame surrounding these issues.

We need to recognize that feminism is not “unified in public, there are lots of movements, some of which even contradict each other.” Most important, we need to recognize that this is not the “death of feminism,” or evidence of “post-feminism,” but rather very characteristic of post-modernism as these smaller groups are all working towards creating a more equal society, and the gains made in the movement are largely due to activism on behalf of the various forms of feminism.

We need to support feminist media!

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