cover-bwCanadian women take two steps forward, just slightly less back

So many issues, so little time (or space, when it comes to the realm of print that I live in): the world of women’s equality remains a complex series of gains and losses — and the losses only seem to be getting worse, while the gains seem to have slowed to a crawl.

The worst part? Far too many people (looking at you, Margaret Wente) seem to think all these problems were solved long ago — so why all the whining, right?

Income disparity? Sooo 1970s! Except, nope — and definitely not for lower income earning women, one of the most vulnerable sectors of our society.

Abuse/harassment/rape? Well sure, it happens — but by gawd, none of us will stand for it these days! Yeah, except that victim shaming is still rampant, and only made more horrible by hateful, horrific anonymous trolling on the Internet.

But wait! Politics! There’s some seriously powerful women in this country in 2014, aren’t there? Yup. And many of them take a crapload of gender-related abuse both in the political arenas where they work and from the aforementioned anonymous assholes online. How shocking it is that more women don’t enter politics.

There’s more, obviously — and far more than we could fit into this one issue of Prairie Dog. But for a snapshot of where our country’s at when it comes to women’s issues right now, please read on. /Chris Kirkland


The State Of Income Disparity

Canada continues to undervalue the work women do — and that’s particularly the case if they aren’t younger, highly educated professional women.

According to the Conference Board of Canada, the gap in income between women and men in Canada was 19 per cent as of January 2013. (By contrast, the income gap in Norway was just eight per cent.)

There were interesting variances in the data compiled by the Conference Board. They noted that “for the most highly educated Canadian women, gender differences in earnings within identical occupations are generally very small among new entrants to the labour force.” For example, in 2005, women aged 25 to 29 with a graduate or professional degree who were employed full-time and worked the entire year (no maternity leave, in other words) earned 96 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts.

Amber Fletcher, a post-doctoral research fellow with the Johnson-Shoyama School for Public Policy, believes that the continued income gap is, in part, due to the fact that women continue to bear a heavier share of the burden when it comes to raising children. Even among professional women, that responsibility can hamper opportunities for advancement.

“There’s this perception that a young woman is on the ‘mommy track,’” says Fletcher. “If she has not yet taken time away from the labour force, there’s an assumption that she will.”

The gender income gap widens dramatically as education levels decline, suggesting that many of the greatest barriers to income equality for Canadian women are class-based. Women with a registered apprenticeship or trades certificate earned just 65 per cent of their male counterparts; young women with no high school diploma earned just 67 percent of the income earned by their male counterparts.

Fletcher believes that difference may be even more pronounced here in Saskatchewan.

“We have resource extraction industries that tend to employ men,” she says. “There are much more lucrative employment opportunities for men [with no high school diploma] than there are for women.”

The lack of good-paying jobs for women with no high school diploma is exacerbated by the lack of affordable, accessible child care — particularly for women who don’t work from nine to five. Some women may need to be at work as early as 5 am, or after midnight.  Fletcher notes that for many women in many areas of the province, child care options at these hours simply don’t exist.

There are also huge differences according to occupation. Women employed in the natural and applied sciences, for example, made 94 cents for every dollar earned by men. Women employed in the health care sector, on the other hand, made just 47 cents on the dollar.

Fletcher believes that the main reason countries like Norway have been more successful in closing the gender-income gap is the greater role of governments in creating policies that lead to change.

“There is a role for the state in doing things like creating affordable and accessible child care spaces, for example,” she says.

She also believes that we can’t afford to think of the gender-income gap as a problem that will fade as an older generation of workers retires.

“When people think of a problem as generational, people stop working on it.” /Rick Pollard


The Problem With Income Splitting

Right after delivering the recent federal budget, Conservative Finance Minister Jim Flaherty backed away from a promise to allow couples with children under 18 to split up to $50,000 of income for tax purposes. The decision generated headlines, because income-splitting was a big party plank for the Cons in the 2011 election, and by declining to implement it Flaherty was seen as thumbing his nose at a key chunk of Conservative voters — well-off, more traditional families with a single breadwinner and stay-at-home spouse.

Why them? Well, because that’s really the only societal group that income-splitting benefits. There’s no impact on families where both spouses work, as they’re taxed separately. And if one spouse happens to be in a higher tax bracket than the other, they can split income through a spousal RSP. That option’s open to couples in the aforementioned rich/traditional category too, but with income-splitting the tax saving would be greater.

Supporters argue that it’s a matter of fairness, and that the current approach to taxing families is biased against traditionally structured units. Theoretically, the breadwinner could be a woman, but in most instances it’s likely to be a man with a stay-at-home wife raising the children. Thus, income-splitting is popular with social conservatives.

When you crunch the numbers — as both the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the C.D. Howe Institute did recently — it turns out that 85 per cent of Canadian families would receive NO BENEFIT from income-splitting. Their studies also revealed that most of the benefits would accrue to the top five per cent of wealthy families. The total tax relief for those families, the studies further calculated, would be between $2.7 billion and $5 billion a year.

Flaherty didn’t rule out the idea of introducing income-splitting in the future, but with the government determined to eliminate the deficit before the next election in October 2015, the finance minister said it was an expense the country couldn’t afford now. That created an immediate rift in the party, with Alberta MP Jason Kenny and other high-profile Conservatives expressing strong misgivings about the policy reversal.

Kenny reiterated his position Feb. 28 at the über-conservative Manning Network Conference in Ottawa, saying that income-splitting helped promote “stable family units.” His comments echoed those of Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the House of Commons on Feb. 26, so this issue is likely to resurface soon. /Gregory Beatty


Emergency Shelters And Saskatchewan

The evidence continues to show that the lack of affordable housing in Saskatchewan’s major cities helps to trap many women in a cycle of domestic violence.

CMHC reports that, in October 2013, the rental vacancy rate in Regina was just 1.8 per cent, and the average rent on a two-bedroom apartment in the Queen City is now $1,018. The rental vacancy rate in Saskatoon was slightly better, at 2.7 per cent — but unfortunately, rents were higher as well, at $1,041. And women looking for accommodation in Estevan were screwed, with average rents of $1,175 and an effective 0 per cent vacancy rate on two-bedroom apartments, the minimum apartment size for women with children.

Diane Delaney is the Coordinator of the Provincial Association of Transition Houses and Services Saskatchewan (PATHS). She notes that the average stay in Saskatchewan shelters used to be 10 days; it has now increased to two weeks. One of the main reasons for the longer stays is that it has become harder for many women, particularly low-income women, to find suitable affordable housing.

“Women are staying longer, and that ties up beds longer,” she reports. A side effect is that the overall number of women reported as staying in shelters may actually be going down.  But that’s due to the longer stays, not because of declining need: Delaney says that the number of women being turned away has actually increased.

It’s not hard to see where this might lead. “Women might do a number of things to cope,” says Delaney. “And one of them is to stay in the abusive relationship.”

Some people seem to think that escaping an abusive relationship is as simple as “showing a little self-respect” and walking out the door. But, for far too many women, it’s not that easy, particularly for women who don’t have a lot of options once they walk out that door.

Low vacancy rates and high average rents mean that many women fleeing violence may be forced to live in appalling, substandard conditions. A 2009 PATHS study described housing with plastic windows, doors that wouldn’t lock, and filthy carpets.

There are other realities of trying to find suitable accommodation in a tight rental market. It may be illegal under the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code to discriminate on the basis of marital status or income source, but systemic barriers still exist. Many landlords ask for references that women fleeing abusive situations simply can’t provide. How do you get references from your previous landlord when your partner punched a hole in the wall?

Staying with relatives isn’t a good option for everyone, either. Not everyone fleeing partner violence has relatives with big houses in the suburbs with a couple of spare bedrooms. Sometimes, when a woman flees her partner, she has to move in with people who are no better off than she is. Not only are conditions overcrowded, but family members may be coping with addiction or abusive situations of their own.

What are the solutions? Delaney thinks we need to look beyond our current economic model.

“We are so stuck in looking at solutions from within our current economic model that we have lost our capacity to think creatively,” she says. “Until we have a more equal society, we won’t be able to end violence.”

Since 2009, PATHS has recommended rent control, an end to condo conversions, rules and regulations governing the upkeep of rental accommodations and better income support. Perhaps most crucially, they recommend building supports into housing programs for women who have experienced violence. Without that support, too many women will be unable to remain independent, safe and able to plan a better future for themselves and their children. /Rick Pollard


On Missing And Murdered Aboriginal Women

On Feb. 26, the body of Lorretta Saunders was found in New Brunswick. The 26-year-old Saint Mary’s University student was studying criminology, and planning on writing her thesis on missing and murdered aboriginal women. As an Inuit woman herself, her death is sadly, tragically ironic.

This problem isn’t just about violence against women; it’s also deeply tied to colonialism and racism. A new public database, created by Maryanne Pearce as part of her PhD thesis for the University of Ottawa’s law school, pegs the number of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada at 824. This number is disproportionately large in comparison to the total number of missing and murdered women.

According to the Native Women’s Association of Canada, aboriginal women and girls make up three per cent of the female population in Canada, but represent about 10 per cent of all female homicides. Closer to home, the Saskatchewan Association of Chiefs of Police reports that almost 59 per cent of missing women and girls in Saskatchewan are of aboriginal ancestry.

As Saunders’ death illustrates, this nightmare isn’t only one for women who live a high-risk lifestyle, despite what some media reports might lead you to believe. (Of the missing and murdered women on Pearce’s list, only 20 per cent were in the sex trade.)

Saunders’ death has renewed calls for a national inquiry or an action plan of some kind. Even the UN has pointed fingers at Canada for its lack of action. During a tour of the country in October 2013, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples James Anaya, urged the Canadian government to set up a national inquiry.

But Kwe Today blogger Naomi Sayers rightfully questions the validity of a national inquiry. One of her concerns is that because an inquiry is non-binding, conducting one won’t solve the problem. Instead, she suggests donating to grassroots projects like Families of Sisters in Spirit.

Groups like Native Women’s Association of Canada’s Sisters in Spirit, Amnesty International’s No More Stolen Sisters, the commemorative art installation Walking With Our Sisters, and others are working hard to raise awareness, but currently, Canada as a country is failing hard at protecting aboriginal women. /Ashleigh Mattern


On Women In Politics

“What does it take to be a political woman? Exactly what it takes to be a political man: will, courage, physical and mental toughness, a sense of humour and an ability to handle stress!”

So reads the effervescent Guide for Women Candidates, published by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (and backed by Status of Women Canada) in an effort to help promote the role of women in municipal politics.

And yet it seems that no amount of bubbly, non-gendered advice can reverse the dismal Canadian political trend of favouring men at the ballot box.

The United Nations says that we should have at least 30 per cent female representation in a government body if women’s concerns are ever going to be addressed. Today, 40 per cent of Saskatoon City councillors are women; in Regina, that number is 20 per cent (which is closer to the Canadian average of 22 per cent).

So, what are the biggest barriers to getting women elected, at least in Canadian cities? According to the FCM, they fall into five main categories: “Assertiveness, fundraising, support networks, media relations, and public speaking.”

Don’t look for the words sexism, systemic discrimination, or gender bias in this document, however — even though our political apparatus is no more immune to them than the rest of society.

Case in point: when newly-elected Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland tried to speak during a recent question period in the House of Commons, she was heckled so loudly that her clock ran out. A national correspondent for the Vancouver Observer apparently didn’t like the pitch of her voice, and so offered Freeland — the former managing editor of Thomson Reuters, by the way — some helpful advice on Twitter: “Put your big girl voice on for #QP… the Hon. Members water glasses are shattering.”  He later apologized for being a #sexist #jerk when Freeland reminded him what year it was, but there are no take-backsies in the world of screenshots and social media.

That telling, nasty incident aside, here are some positive affirmations for the aspiring politician who happens to be female: “Women also enjoy some benefits as municipal election candidates. In voters’ eyes, women enjoy a positive association, just for being women willing to run. They are perceived as serious about the job, honest, and a source of new ideas. Women are also more involved in their communities than they realize. Churches, school groups, park groups and service organizations are a wealth of supporters and volunteers,” the FCM guide says. In other words, you’ll probably catch shit for being a woman. But on the flipside, you’ll earn some respect for being a political woman. /Lisa Johnson


Child Care And Other Nice Things We Can’t Have

If the Harper government was truly interested in promoting “stable family units,” as opposed to trying to put the genie of women’s liberation back in the bottle a bit by providing a disincentive for women to work outside the home through income-splitting, they’d invest in safe and affordable child care that would make it easier for working couples to balance family and career aspirations.

In the mid ‘00s, a universal day care program was close to being implemented — but then Paul Martin’s Liberal government (which proposed the plan) fell in the 2006 election to the Harper Conservatives. One of the first things the Cons did was scrap the proposed $6 billion program and replace it with a $100 per month payment for every child under six — giving parents, they maintain to this day, the freedom to choose the best child care option for them.

Daycare expenses are also tax deductable. But when you consider that full-time licensed spots for toddlers run as high as $140 a month in Québec City or Montréal… Okay, those probably aren’t the best examples to use in an article arguing for affordable daycare in Canada, because $140 a month (actually, $7 a day) is AFFORDABLE. But it’s a provincial program that Québec implemented on its own to subsidize non-profit daycare facilities.

The Québec program isn’t perfect, as shortages still remain. But compared to everywhere else in Canada it’s a dream. In cities like Vancouver and Toronto, daycare can run as high as $1200 a month. Elsewhere, it’s in the $900-a-month range. And licensed daycare spots are in extremely short supply. The pressure that puts on couples contemplating raising a family is intense.

In an October 2013 Globe & Mail feature, Erin Anderssen observed that women get on waiting lists the instant “the stick turns blue” and then hope they win the “daycare lottery” and secure a spot in a quality facility that would permit them to return to work with the knowledge their child was being cared for properly.

The potential benefits are incalculable: less stress for parents, a good growth opportunity for children, a more productive economy. Already, two-thirds of women work outside the home. And with women now accounting for 61 per cent of post-secondary degrees, the jobs they’re occupying are increasingly skilled and vital to Canada’s economic future.

When you consider all the benefits, publicly subsidized universal child care is a no-brainer. But in the Harper government’s 7100-word throne just a week earlier, as Anderssen noted in her October article, child care got precisely 64 words. So it’s definitely a non-priority for the Conservatives. /Gregory Beatty


Blaming The Victims? Knock It Off.

Partly because of a torrent of high-profile sexual assault cases last year — many of them involving minors, some sloppy police work and way too much public victim-blaming — the concept of “rape culture” has gained some attention. The overwhelming evidence that we live in a world fiercely conducive to sexual assault against women and girls has inspired a grassroots collective based in Toronto to try to change the conversation in order to build the opposite: “consent culture.”

The group, called femifesto, is developing a toolkit to help people avoid blaming and shaming victims, knowing the importance of media in shaping conversations about sexual assault.

“What we’ve realized from our work on the toolkit is that sexual assault is a very difficult topic to write about, and journalists may be struggling with how to do so,” says Sasha Elford of femifesto. “So, while we’ve included examples of past reporting that pose[d] challenges, our focus is to start a dialogue with members of the press in order to understand the difficulties and questions they may have around these topics. Our goal is to work with journalists towards creating language and frameworks for reporting that are supportive of survivors.”

It’s primarily meant for reporters, but it should be read by anybody who has an interest in ending sexual violence. For example, if you’re asking what a survivor was wearing, who they date or what they do as an occupation, you are asking the wrong questions.

“Survivors often cite an unwillingness to come forward about being raped due to fear of being blamed for the attack,” the toolkit explains.

Second, be aware of how assumptions about gender inform your perspective.

“Seeing men as naturally sexually aggressive assumes that they have no control over their choices, and leads to the assumption that rape and other forms of sexual assault are inevitable and that they are about sex, rather than power and control,” say the authors.

Often, it’s the seemingly small choices in language that make the biggest impact in a story. Be wary of a negative bias towards a survivor’s report, and an unnecessary emphasis on a perpetrator’s positive qualities. When talking about sexual assault, avoid euphemistic terms, or gentle verbs that imply consent, sensationalize the crime as sexy with gratuitous detail, or trivialize it as natural. Call it what it is, the authors say: “Sexual assault is not sex, it is violence.” /Lisa Johnson


Equality By The Numbers

Did you know that women have held the right to vote for less than 100 years? That as recently as 40 years ago, there were no female RCMP officers?  That right now less than one quarter of Canada’s members of parliament are female? It’s all true. Here are some statistics and factoids that show Canada in 2014 isn’t quite the bastion of gender equality some people like to pretend it is. /Chris Morin

The percentage of the Canadian population that was comprised of girls and women in 2010: 50.4%. (Source: Stats Canada)

The estimated life expectancy at birth for Canadian females in 2001: 82 years. (Source: Stats Canada)

The estimated life expectancy at birth for Canadian aboriginal females in 2001: 76.8 years. (Source: Stats Canada)

The percentage of women acting as Canadian elected officials in provincial, territorial and federal governments in 2011: 21.1%. Source: (Prairie Women’s Health Centre of Excellence/Rethinking Women and Healthy Living in Canada)

The number of female MPs elected to the House of Commons in the 2011 federal election: 76 (24.6 per cent of all seats held). (Source: Prairie Women’s Health Centre of Excellence / Rethinking Women and Healthy Living in Canada)

The number of female senators appointed in 2011: 36. (Source: Prairie Women’s Health Centre of Excellence, Rethinking Women and Healthy Living in Canada)

The number of women leading a Canadian federal political party: One.

“Idiots, madmen, criminals and judges”: those not allowed to vote, as stipulated by Canada’s federal electoral law in 1917. (Source: CBC)

1921: The year some Canadian women were eligible to vote in federal elections. (At the time, aboriginal and Asian women were NOT allowed to vote.) (Source: CBC)

1960: The year that all Canadian women were eligible to vote. Similarly, aboriginal Canadians are no longer required to give up their treaty rights and renounce their status under the Indian Act in order to qualify for the vote. (Source: CBC)

One in four: The estimated number of women in Canada that will experience intimate partner violence or sexual violence. (Source: World Health Organization)

The number of police-reported sexual assaults in Canada in 2011: 21,821 (Source: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.)

The number of police-reported sexual assaults in Saskatchewan in 2011: 1,123. (Source: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives)

The total cost of intimate partner violence in Canada per year (including pain and suffering, medical care costs and lost productivity): $7.4 billion. (Source: Justice Canada, An Estimation of the Economic Impact of Spousal Violence in Canada)

1859: The year a law is passed in Canada that allows married women to own property. (Source: CitizenSHIFT)

1909: The year the Canadian Criminal Code was amended to criminalize the abduction of women. Before this, the abduction of any woman over 16 was legal, except if she was an heiress. (Source: Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women)

1969: The year the distribution of information about birth control was decriminalized in Canada. (Source: Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women)

1880: The year the first woman is issued a license to practice medicine in Canada. (Source: CitizenSHIFT)

1974: The year the RCMP hired its first female member. (Source: Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women)