One morning last week my husband and I were reading the papers over our morning coffee when he read out, “According to this poll, Canada is ranked number 1 for women in the G20.” My knee-jerk reaction was something like “You’re kidding” or maybe “Very funny.” His response was, “That’s what it says. Gives you an idea of what it’s like elsewhere. The world has a long way to go.” He’s right.
Now, first of all, this is just one poll, and it was done just comparing the G20 countries, which is an interestingly disparate group of countries (see results below). Another indicator, the UN Gender Inequality Index, places Canada 20th out of 145 countries ranked. But by either measure I should be rejoicing that my country is doing so well at advancing gender equality, right?
By and large, we, along with other developed countries, provide access to all levels of education to everyone, surely the most important stepping stone to equality. As well, Canada has universal health care, so things like prenatal care for women and early health care for children should be a given.
Unlike in Saudi Arabia, we are allowed to drive cars. Unlike Switzerland, whose female citizens only obtained the right to vote in 1970, and Saudi Arabia, where they’re still waiting, we’ve been able to vote since 1917. We can pretty well work in any occupation for which we qualify, although in many domains harassment remains a challenge. Sexual harassment is illegal, so there is hope that this will improve over time. Barriers continue to be broken, although some more slowly than others. And, most definitely, in Canada the unspeakable horrors that are inflicted on women around the world for no other reason than that they are women are recognized for what they are and dealt with firmly when they are found to have happened. We pray that someday these tragedies can be prevented rather than grieved after the fact.
So why did I have such a negative reaction to that headline? I think it was because right now making gains as a socially inclusive, respectful society does not seem to be top of mind for Canada. In this difficult time for our planet, economically and politically, it is hard not to feel that some ground is slipping away. In Canada, we used to see ourselves as a nation of peacekeepers, now we’re not sure what we see ourselves as. This matters to women. We changed policy so that international aid for maternal care no longer included contraception; this matters to women. We are in the process of cutting down on environmental protection regulations with no proper debate; this matters to women. We are cutting back on scientific research into environmental and climate change; this matters to women. We are betting the bank on natural resource exploitation at the expense of a more diversified economy based on innovation; this matters to women. We have an increasing disparity between the rich and the poor; this matters to women. We have desperate problems within some first nations and other vulnerable populations; this matters to women.
I can’t help but think of the number of women who are involved in politics and senior levels of business, where the decisions are made – very few and not growing rapidly. As of 2010, Canada ranked 50th in the world for women’s participation in politics, with women holding just 23 per cent of the seats in federal, provincial and territorial legislatures. At the federal level, Canada was tied with Mauritania for 49th place.
In our current Parliament, elected in 2011, the number of women set a new record, with 24.7% of the MPs being female. The statistical breakdown is interesting. Of the 76 female MPs, over half of them are in the NDP, and few of those candidates really expected to be elected. Bravo to them. Looking at who ran: 40% of the NDP candidates were women, 29% of the Liberal candidates were women, 22% of the Conservative candidates were women, and 32% of the Green and BQ candidates were women. Measuring success: 39% (40 MPs) of the elected NDP are women, 17% (6 MPs) of the elected Liberals are women, 17% (28) of the majority Conservatives are women, 100% (1) of elected Greens are women, and 25% (1) of elected BQ are women. The cynic in me says that with the ascent of the NDP to opposition status – aka the prospect of power – there will be more men interested in standing as NDP candidates in the next election. It is a party that is focused on issues that resonate with women and so their higher percentage of female candidates makes sense, but we’ll see. Power speaks, and not often with a female voice.
I am not saying that Canada is not a very good place to be a woman. Not at all; it is. It’s a great place to be a woman or a man. But, coming first in this poll makes me nervous. It sends a message to decision makers that things are fine, even more than fine, which is patently untrue. We have work to do. We have work to do to make Canada an even better place for every woman, every child, and every man. We have work to do to help the whole world achieve that same goal. Every minute counts.
Results of G20 poll in ranked order: Canada, Germany, UK, Australia, France, US, Japan, Italy, Argentina, South Korea, Brazil, Turkey, Russia, China, Mexico, South Africa, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, India (EU, 20th member, not included in poll)
Categories measured: Quality of health, Freedom from violence, Workplace opportunities, Access to resources, Political participation, Freedom from trafficking/slavery