In defence of the “F” word: why we need feminism now more than ever

I started blogging a few months ago because I’d had enough of the smear campaign against feminism that has been underway for many years. Like the #WomenAgainstFeminism phenomenon on Tumblr where women would take photographs of themselves holding signs that state why they do not need feminism, such as, “I don’t need feminism because my self-worth is not directly tied to the size of my victim complex.”   Or the recent Time magazine article which included “feminist” in a list of annoying words that readers could vote to ban from public discourse. Or the public distancing from feminism by celebrities like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, who, for better or worse are role models for young girls.

These anti-feminism sentiments have led smart, progressive people to distance themselves from a movement that’s aim is equality. I know because I’m married to one. My partner is a strong woman. She grew up playing hockey and baseball with boys because our small town didn’t have girls’ teams. She has always known what she wants and isn’t particularly concerned with conforming to societal expectations. She is tough. She is egalitarian. But she is not a feminist.

And she’s not the only one. Most polls say that fewer than half of younger women identify with feminism.

From my conversations with my wife, I’ve learned a thing or two about anti-feminism sentiments. In many ways, anti-feminism campaigns are grounded in misunderstandings. Misunderstandings about what it means to be a feminist.

I’m not a feminist. I hail men, I love men, I celebrate American male culture – beer, bars, and muscle cars.” – Lady Gaga

Misunderstandings about what feminism stands for.

No, I wouldn’t say feminist-that’s too strong. I think when people hear feminist, it’s like, ‘Get out of my way, I don’t need anyone.”- Kelly Clarkson

And misunderstandings about where women are at in terms of equality.

“I don’t need feminism because men are now the true victims of discrimination.”

It’s this last misunderstanding that I’m most concerned about. It’s true that women have made a lot of progress in the last forty or fifty years. But it would be a mistake to believe feminism is no longer necessary. The way I see it, sexism still abounds. Both in the ways it always has and in completely new ways.

How far we’ve come

Let me start by acknowledging that women’s equality has come a long way since the 1970s, especially in terms of women’s education and participation in the workforce.

Young women in Canada are pursuing post-secondary education at impressive rates and are now more likely than male youth to hold a university degree. In the United States, women earn almost 60 per cent of undergraduate degrees and 60 per cent of all master’s degrees. They also hold almost 52 per cent of all professional jobs.

In terms of labour force participation, women have gone from 37.97 per cent of the workforce in 1970 to 47.21 per cent of the workforce during 2006-2010. Women have also made significant gains in certain occupations. In 1970, very few women were accountants, police officers, lawyers, pharmacists and doctors. Between 2006 and 2010, 60 per cent of accountants were women, 52.6 per cent of pharmacists, 32.4 per cent of physicians and 33.4 per cent of lawyers.

Rates of domestic violence have also declined significantly since 1999. This decline is partly due to increased social equality and financial freedom for women, which makes it easier for them to leave abusive relationships at earlier stages. However, after falling for a decade, rates of domestic violence have now flat-lined. In 2009, the rate of self-reported spousal violence was the same as in 2004. Unfortunately, reporting rates have not improved over the years. Victims of domestic violence are now less likely to report an incident to police.

How far we have to go

Despite these significant gains, women still lag substantially behind men when it comes to their representation in leadership positions. For example, only four per cent of CEOs in Canada’s top 500 companies are women. Ninety-six per cent are men.

Women are also seriously outnumbered among Canada’s elected representatives. Although there are more women in politics now than in 1974, when only four per cent of MPs were women, men still outnumber women four to one among Canada’s elected representatives. And the Conservative caucus is a mere 17 per cent female compared to more than 40 per cent for the NDP.

Women also have a long way to go in terms of pay equity. Even with a university degree, women on average earned almost $30,000 less than men in 2008.

In some areas, women are actually losing ground. For instance, the percentage of women appointed to Canada’s more than 200 federal tribunals, boards, agencies and Crown corporations has dropped from 37 per cent before Harper’s Conservatives took power in 2006, to 32.5 per cent. The numbers for judge appointments are even worse. Fewer than a third of federally-appointed judges by the Conservatives were women. By comparison, nearly 40 per cent of the judges appointed in 2005 by the then Liberal government were women. The Supreme Court of Canada’s high-water mark for women judges was four out of nine. Under Harper, we have slipped to three. As we saw with the attempted appointment of Marc Nadon, the Conservatives have no intention of remedying the imbalance.

Despite these stark comparisons, Federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay has tried to defend his government’s low rate of female appointments by blaming women. Earlier this year he stated that women don’t apply to be judges because they fear the job will take them away from their children– and that children need their mothers more than their fathers.

In BC, the numbers for judicial appointments are no better. Last fall, retired B.C. Supreme Court judge Donna Martinson wrote that only five women and one non-Caucasian were included among 31 judicial appointments since January 2009.

Violence against women is another area where progress has stalled or started to backslide. Rates of self-reported violent victimization against women have not decreased between 1999 and 2009. In 2010, the rate of intimate partner homicide committed against females increased by 19 per cent, the third increase in four years.

In Canada, the backsliding of women’s progress may be partially attributable to our government’s lack of commitment to women’s equality. In 2006, the Conservatives cut Status of Women Canada’s budget by 37 percent and closed 12 of its 16 regional offices. They also eliminated funding to women’s groups doing research, advocacy and lobbying.

This may be one reason the UN Annual Human Development Index for 2012 revealed that inequality in Canada is actually growing.

New forms of misogyny

Beyond the traditional indicators of women’s progress, we see girls facing new forms of sexism in their daily lives. In many ways, these new forms are even more pervasive and difficult to escape. Like cyberbullying, the sexualisation of women and girls in the media and the trafficking of women and girls for sexual exploitation.

The effects of these new forms of misogyny are devastating. Eighty per cent of ten year old girls in America say they have been on a diet. The number one magic wish for young girls age 11 to 17 is to be thinner. With these numbers it should come as no surprise that we are seeing record declines in mental health among adolescent girls.

We are also seeing high levels of sexual violence. In 2008, over 11,000 sexual assaults of girls under the age of 18 were reported to police in Canada. Since only about ten per cent of assaults are reported, the actual number is much higher. Rates of sexual assault are much higher for certain populations of girls. Tragically, about 75 per cent of Aboriginal girls under the age of 18 have been sexually abused.

We are also seeing high levels of sexual exploitation on a global scale. The U.S. State Department estimates that between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year. Eighty per cent of them are women and girls trafficked for sexual exploitation.

The way I see it, feminism is not irrelevant. Girls today need feminism now more than ever. In the next several posts, I will be exploring the new ways sexism is impacting girls today, and how feminism can be utilized to help them.

-Kaity

Picture: “feminism” by Jay Morrison is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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Why women’s voices matter

I recently attended a talk by the Right Honourable Kim Campbell, Canada’s first and only woman Prime Minister. The talk was called, “Women’s Voices: What difference do they make?” It was about women’s unique life experiences and the consequences of ignoring women’s perspectives in politics, business and media.

I had never heard Campbell speak before, so I was eager to attend. I was disappointed to see that few Vancouverites felt the same way. Despite Vancouver’s population of over 600,000 people, the auditorium at Simon Fraser University’s Harbour Centre was only half full. To be fair, the event was not effectively promoted. Nonetheless, I was dismayed to see poor attendance for a talk about the importance of women’s voices.

But I digress.

Campbell is a Conservative and so it won’t surprise you that I didn’t agree with everything said at the talk. It did, however, give me a lot to think about.

Let’s start with where Campbell and I agree. The thesis of the talk was that women’s perspectives are vital. Vital to the creation of good public policy. Vital to public discourse. And vital to the success of modern businesses and organizations.

To illustrate the point, the organizer of the talk, Informed Opinions, discussed a little experiment. Informed Opinions trains women experts to share their ideas through media commentary. Curious to know what differences women’s voices make in terms of focus and content, they created a word cloud from the first 100 published opinion pieces written by their workshop participants. They then compared this word cloud to the most prominent words generated by a similar sampling of op-eds written by male experts.

The clouds contained many similar words, including Canadian, government, health, political, public and work. However, a number of other phrases appeared prominently only in women-penned pieces. Tellingly, these included abuse, assault, benefit, care, children, equality, families, girls, help, justice, services, sexual, support, treatment, violence and women.

In many ways, Campbell’s experience as a woman member of parliament mirrored that experiment. In her talk, Campbell told anecdotes of times she educated an awkwardly silent room of male colleagues about issues such as contraception and sexual assault. Issues that are very prominent in women’s lives, but admittedly were not well understood or considered particularly important by some of her male colleagues.

Given the complex social, economic and environmental challenges we face, it simply does not make sense to make public policy based on the experiences of only half the population. On this point, I wholeheartedly agree with Campbell.

But public policy is not where women’s contribution ends. Research shows that women also play a large role in driving economic growth. In her talk, Campbell referred to various studies that prove women’s positive influence on business.

Let’s look at some facts.

Research suggests that to succeed, businesses should start by promoting women.

As investors, women come out better on almost every count. They are less likely to hold a losing investment for too long. They are less likely to wait for too long to sell a winner. And they are less likely to put too much money into a single investment or to buy a reputedly hot stock without doing sufficient research.

Women also excel as leaders. New studies have found that female managers outshine their male counterparts in almost every measure. Forty-eight per cent of all US firms are owned or controlled by women. Compared to all firms, women-owned firms have triple the growth rate, twice the rate of job creation and are more likely to stay in business. McKinsey & Company found that international companies with more women on their corporate boards far outperformed the average company in return on equity and other measures. Operating profit was also 56 per cent higher.

How can these results be explained? A recent article from Scientific American provides some insight.

In that article, entitled, “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter,” Katherine Phillips discusses decades of research from organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers that demonstrates that being around people who are different makes us more creative, more diligent and harder-working.

Phillips notes that people who are different from one another in race, gender and other dimensions bring unique information and experiences to bear on the task at hand. Diversity promotes hard work and creativity by encouraging the consideration of alternatives. Her conclusion? We need diversity- in teams, organizations and society as a whole- if we are to change, grow and innovate.

So far, Campbell and I are on the same page.

My disagreement comes with what to do about the inadequate representation of women’s voices.

Despite the fact that women constitute roughly half the population and workforce, and more than 60 per cent of university grads, women’s voices continue to be inadequately represented in media, politics and business.

In Canada’s most influential print, broadcast and online new media, male voices outnumber female voices by a factor of four to one.

In Federal politics, only 17% of Conservative Members of Parliament are women. The percentages for the NDP and Liberals are 38% and 25% respectively. BC has the highest rate of women MLAs in Canada at 36%. The other provinces and territories range from 10% (Northwest Territories) to 35% (Ontario).

Status of Women Canada reports that in 2012, women held only ten per cent of seats on Canadian boards. They held only 16 per cent of board seats on FP500 companies. And, on 40 per cent of FP500 boards, women held zero seats.

So what do we do about this serious underrepresentation?

Campbell suggests that women are often shy of power, that we see it as a bad thing and not as a potential to do great good. She suggests that women need to step up and grab power.

This to me, sounds a lot like “lean in,” the message to women from Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook. In her book, appropriately titled “Lean In,” Sandberg suggests that women unintentionally hold themselves back in their careers rather than pursuing their career goals with gusto.

Step up, lean in, whatever you want to call it, is a philosophy that puts the onus on women for their inadequate representation in positions of power rather than the institutions and corporate structures that were made by men and continue to be run by them. It is a philosophy that calls out women for “opting out” of their careers rather than their employers for refusing to foster flexible, supportive environments that are more likely to keep women employees.

But more importantly, in my view, it is a philosophy that distracts us from the real question we should all be asking. It’s not a question of how we force businesses to accept women or their unique tendency to bear children. Nor is it a question of how to force women to work harder or longer. The question is, given what we know about women’s profound impact on the success of various entities, how can organizations justify their exclusion?

At a time when innovation is recognized as a key competitive advantage, the increase in a group’s intelligence attributed to the inclusion of women should be sufficient incentive for organizations in all sectors to work harder at soliciting female participation.

In my view, given what we know about women’s contribution to public policy, science and business, it is simply negligent for public and private institutions to refuse to reform the structures that push women out. Organizations should be asking themselves what they can do to make themselves more attractive to women, so they can reap the benefits of keeping us.

The refusal to change may well be the death knell for the stubborn “old boys’ clubs” of the world that will fail to take advantage of the exceptional investment, communication and leadership skills of women and thus fail to remain competitive.

In the meantime, our leaders should stop asking women to take personal responsibility for systemic failings. Our ambition (or lack thereof) is not the problem.

-Kaity

Conservatives looking to add contempt of court to record

In March 2011, Harper’s Conservatives became the first government in the history of the Commonwealth to be found in contempt of Parliament. That historic moment came about after Harper’s then minority government refused to disclose sufficient information about the cost of several big-ticket items such as the law-and-order agenda, corporate tax cuts and the plan to buy stealth combat jets.

The Conservatives now seem to be angling for a second contempt order, this time from the courts. In 2012, Cabinet overhauled the Interim Federal Health Program. With the changes, the government ended the more than 50 year tradition of funding comprehensive health insurance coverage for refugee claimants and others who have come to Canada seeking protection.

The effect of these changes was to deny funding for life-saving medications such as insulin and cardiac drugs to impoverished refugee claimants from war-torn countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. It was to deny funding for basic pre-natal, obstetrical and paediatric care to women and children seeking the protection of Canada from “Designated Countries of Origin” such as Mexico and Hungary. It was to deny funding for any medical care whatsoever to individuals seeking refuge in Canada who are only entitled to a Pre-removal Risk Assessment.

Refugee organizations brought a constitutional challenge to these changes claiming, among other things, that they amounted to “cruel and unusual treatment.” The Federal Court agreed, in a decision released in July 2014.

The Court concluded that the government intentionally set out to make the lives of admittedly poor, vulnerable and disadvantaged individuals even more difficult in an effort to force those who have sought the protection of Canada to leave more quickly and to deter others from coming here.

The Court was particularly, but not exclusively, concerned with the effect of the changes on children who have been brought to Canada by their parents. Like the young child with a fever and cough who was unable to get a chest x-ray to rule out pneumonia. Or the asthmatic 8 year old who began coughing and wheezing more severely because his mother could no longer afford asthma medications. Or a young child infected at birth with HIV, who without medical treatment would be effectively condemned to an early death.

The Court concluded that the 2012 modifications to the Interim Federal Health Program “potentially jeopardize the health, the safety and indeed the very lives, of these innocent and vulnerable children in a manner that shocks the conscience and outrages our standards of decency.”

The Court gave the government four months to reinstate the coverage in place before 2012. The government, not surprisingly, has appealed the decision. However, in the meantime, its request for more time to abide by the Court’s order was denied. The deadline for compliance was November 4, 2014.

November 4, 2014 has come and gone and while the government says it has complied with the Court’s decision, experts say this is blatantly false. Professor Jennifer Bond notes that while certain refugee claimants have had their coverage restored, others have not. Many claimants still will not be covered for drugs or supplemental health benefits.

“The government is still being punitive, they’re being selective and the court told them to reinstate all benefits,” said Peter Showler, co-chair of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers. Showler said it is likely their lawyers will file a contempt motion, asking the court to order full compliance.

We heard in December 2012 from whistleblower Edgar Smith that the legislative branch of the Department of Justice was approving legislation even if it had a “combined likelihood of five per cent or less” of being upheld by the courts. But now the Conservatives have taken one step beyond passing likely unconstitutional legislation. They are now breaching an explicit court order.

If there was any doubt in our minds before, there should be none now. Harper’s Conservatives believe themselves to be above the law.

-Kaity

Lest we forget: Harper’s war on Canadian rights and freedoms

Today is Remembrance Day, a day we remember the men and women who have served and continue to serve our country during times of war, conflict and peace; men and women who sacrificed their lives “for their homes and families and friends, for a collection of traditions they cherished and a future they believed in.”

We often take for granted the values and freedoms we enjoy as Canadians: the freedom of speech, the freedom to dissent, the right to privacy, the right to choose our government. Canadians who went off to war, did so in the belief that those values were being threatened. And so they went to fight in distant lands to defend those values.

Ironically, the biggest threat to these values does not lie in distant lands. It does not take the shape of religious extremists or communists or weapons of mass destruction. The biggest threat to Canadian rights and freedoms lies at home. While we take time to honour the service and sacrifice of men and women who have fought to preserve our values, our own government is systematically dismantling the very rights and freedoms that make us Canadian.

The Right to Vote

The right to choose our government lies at the heart of Canadian democracy. It is so significant it is enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Despite its importance, the Harper Government has recently taken steps to take the fundamental right to vote away from certain Canadians.

The so-called “Fair Elections Act” strengthens voting identification requirements by banning the use of Voter Information Cards as corroborating documentation. It also eliminates the practice of vouching, by which a qualified elector may prove her identity by taking an oath and being vouched for by another qualified elector. In the last election, this process was relied on by 100,000 Canadians who did not have sufficient ID to meet the voter identification rules.

The alleged purpose of the Fair Elections Act is to cut down on voter fraud. That seems like a legitimate purpose, except that there was no evidence that voter fraud by vouching was a problem. A recent Elections Canada report found that just 0.4 per cent of ballots cast in 2011 had irregularities due to vouching – of which the vast majority were cases of misfiled paperwork, not misidentified voters.   This has led critics to conclude that the real goal is to supress the votes of citizens who are less likely to vote Conservative.

Evidence from the United States indicates that stricter identification requirements do in fact keep qualified voters from voting. In particular, elderly, minority, low-income and homeless citizens are more likely to lack the required identity documents. Without vouching, these citizens’ right to vote may effectively evaporate.

Freedom to Dissent

Another extremely important right in a democracy is the freedom to disagree with the government and to freely communicate that dissent. In Canada, we have many non-profit organizations on both sides of the political spectrum who advocate for changes to law and policy. But lately, something has gone awry.

The supposedly non-political Canada Revenue Agency (“CRA”) has used special funds provided by the government to investigate organizations with tax-free charitable status to ensure they are not devoting more than the legal limit of 10 per cent of their resources to advocacy activities. But that’s not the problem. What is, is the fact that virtually all of the organizations that have been investigated, from the Suzuki Foundation to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, have been on the “progressive” end of the political spectrum.

There are plenty of charitable entities on the right- from the Fraser Institute to the Canadian Constitution Foundation- but so far none of them have attracted the interest of the CRA.

The Broadbent Institute recently issued a study of ten of these right-leaning charities. The study found that all ten claim they devote zero per cent of their resources to political activity. The published work of the organizations would suggest otherwise. Has the CRA been interested in these inconsistencies? Nope.

NPD’s Murray Rankin asked Revenue Minister Kerry-Lynne Finlay about this apparently unequal treatment:

“We have seen the Conservatives go after environmentalists, human rights groups, international development groups and yes, even bird-watchers — pretty well anyone who may disagree with them. However, a new report suggests that right-wing charities get a different ride. Annual filings from 10 right-wing charities showed no political activities on their part; none, in spite of the fact that their websites are full of advocacy. Can the minister explain this double standard?”

In response, the Minister simply denied a political motive and then tried to obfuscate the issue by randomly scolding Rankin for asking the question.

The Right to Privacy

Quick on the heels of the high-profile deaths of Rehtaeh Parsons and Amanda Todd, the Harper Government introduced a bill to address cyber-bullying and online crime. Women’s organizations, including West Coast LEAF, have identified cyber misogyny as a serious problem and have made recommendations for ways in which Canadian law and policy can be strengthened to better protect the equality rights of women, girls and other vulnerable communities online.

But despite being named the “Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act,” the bill is only tangentially about online harassment. Really, it is a surveillance bill. Most of the bill is devoted to expanding the state’s powers over the search and seizure of personal Internet data. It would give police and state access to Canadians’ data and online activities without a warrant by granting complete civil and criminal immunity to telecommunication companies that voluntarily grant police access to personal information.

Think this won’t affect you? Think again. In 2011, government agencies asked telecommunications companies to voluntarily hand over data in 1.2 million cases. Between April 2012 and March 2013, telecommunications companies received 18,849 “voluntary” requests from just one government department: the Canada Border Services Agency. Ninety-nine per cent of those requests had no judicial authorization. The companies provided information in 99.98 per cent of cases. With a no-liability guarantee, it is reasonable to expect telecommunications companies to be even less likely to say no.

This bill is likely unconstitutional, since the Supreme Court of Canada recently ruled that the voluntary disclosure of subscriber information to the police violates the Charter, but the Harper Government has no intention to amend it.

With a government that has gone after environmentalists, human rights groups, international development groups and even bird-watchers, there is no knowing whose privacy will be at risk.

Freedom of Information

There are few issues more fundamental to democracy than the right of the public to access information produced by government scientists and researchers. “We as a society cannot make informed choices about critical issues if we are not fully informed about the facts.”

Unfortunately for Canadians, the attack on information has become one of the trademarks of the Harper Government. Take for example the decision in July 2010 to cut the mandatory long form census and replace it with a voluntary one. Along with the long form census, researchers and citizens alike lost important data on shifting population trends and changes in the quality of life of Canadians; data that is a vital precursor to good public policy.

In 2012, the federal budget revealed further and more drastic attacks on the right of Canadians to be informed. For instance, fifty per cent of Stats Canada employees were warned that their jobs were at risk and a number of research bodies were vaporized, including the National Roundtable on the Environment, the First Nations Statistical Institute, the National Council on Welfare and the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science.

At the same time the Harper Government was cutting resources for research, it was also tightening the media protocols applied to federal scientists. Federal scientists now routinely require political approval before they can speak to the media about their scientific findings. Particularly strict rules apply to issues of climate change and oil sands.

In a recent survey of federal scientists, only ten per cent said they were allowed to speak freely without constraints about the work they do at their department or agency. By contrast, 24 per cent said they have been asked to exclude or alter technical information in government documents for non-scientific reasons.

Why should this concern us? Because, we are being denied access to information that we need to make informed decisions about how we conduct ourselves and how we act politically. And, some of this information impacts our health and safety. In the survey of federal scientists, 50 per cent of respondents said they were aware of “cases where health and safety of Canadians” or environmental sustainability has been compromised because of political interference with their scientific work. And in this climate of fear, 71 per cent agreed that “our ability to develop policy, law and programs that are based on scientific evidence and facts has been compromised by political interference.”

Lest We Forget

The Harper Government’s war on Canadian rights and freedoms has at times been sly. Laws, believed to be unconstitutional, have been slipped into omnibus budget bills or given misleading titles reminiscent of George Orwell’s doublethink in the dystopian novel 1984. But the changes have not gone unnoticed. If my newsfeed is any indication, citizens across the country are aware that their beloved institutions are changing, and not for the better. We have an election coming up, and it is my hope that these attacks on our most valued rights and freedoms will not be forgotten.

In the meantime, I plan to reflect this Remembrance Day on the values I hold dear, and what I can do to stop being complacent while the rights and freedoms of my fellow Canadians are under attack.

“We must remember. If we do not, the sacrifice of those one hundred thousand Canadian lives will be meaningless.”

-Kaity