When it was announced on Thursday that Viola Desmond was selected as the first woman to appear on a Canadian bank note, I wanted to feel nothing other than joy. Sadly, I couldn’t. My happiness was tinged by lingering shock and anger as I processed the news, from just the day before, that a 17-year-old male student from a Toronto high school was arrested for planning an attack on female students. The assault was to take place on December 6th, the anniversary of the Montreal Massacre. That 1989 killing of 14 young women at L’Ecole Polytechnique was the result of one man’s self-proclaimed war against feminism. To imagine that anyone would want to commemorate and replicate such a murderous act left me cold.
How can we help our girls make sense of such profound contrast? On the one hand, we have our government officially commemorating the important role of women in Canada’s history. On the other hand, we have a teenage boy feeling inspired by a 27-year-old attack against women – an attack that happened before he was even born. This tells me that complacency is not a position any Canadian can afford to take.
What should we do as parents, educators, and concerned citizens? How do we help our children make sense of such shockingly disparate views on the value of women? I believe that conversation is key – and not just conversation with our daughters, but with our sons, too. We need to talk about what happens in society on a daily basis, both the overt acts of violence against women, and the more commonplace occurrences of sexism and gender discrimination.
It’s important for us to engage our children in age-appropriate but critical conversations about what they see on television or read in newspapers or encounter in the playground. We have to help them formulate their own opinions and consider what they might want to do in response. We certainly must be prepared ourselves to take a firm stand against gender discrimination, forcefully and loudly asserting it is wrong, because if the most important role models in our children’s lives do not speak up, then what does that say about the value we place on our mothers, our wives, our sisters, and our daughters?
One of the biggest challenges we face in tackling these topics and having such mature conversations is the near impossibility of discussing abstractions with children and teens. They simply don’t know what they don’t know, and have trouble envisioning and understanding the impact of a world they’ve never encountered.
In 2010, my daughter, Olivia and I were interviewed for a Maclean’s magazine article about girls’ changing perceptions of gender equality. At the time, and as a Grade 10 student at an all-girls’ school, my daughter reported experiencing virtually no moments in life when her gender stood in her way. Did she believe that inequality would ever impact her? Did she think that being female would change the way she was perceived in the workplace? Absolutely not. And no amount of argument from her “too old to get it” mother would change her mind.
Fast forward to 2016, and my now 21-year-old daughter has a much more nuanced understanding of gender equality. Four years of university life, three summer jobs in the finance industry, and two years of business school have opened her eyes. She would likely tell you that her experiences have been, for the most part, positive. But she would also likely add that she has seen and experienced instances where how a female looks, how assertive she is as a team member, or how she dresses becomes part of an often unspoken value judgment. I know she didn’t and perhaps couldn’t understand this when she was younger.
I believe that my daughter’s evolution was forced by the broader life circumstances she encountered (and that is truly how all of us evolve – through lived experience). I also believe that her ability to handle what she encounters was nurtured during our (underappreciated at the time) family conversations around the dinner table but also by her years spent in an all-girls’ school.
I’ve heard it argued that single-sex schools don’t prepare girls for the real world. To me, that’s like saying that swimming lessons in a pool don’t prepare you for open water. I believe that an all-girls’ setting builds the skills, the confidence, and the tenacity necessary for young women to navigate the rough seas ahead. It provides them with the space to develop opinions, the opportunity to discover and use their voice, and the confidence that being heard and respected instills. So the investment we made in my daughter’s education is showing itself now through her committed and courageous willingness to tackle a complicated world.
As I reflect on the contrasting events of this past week, I do believe that women have made and will continue to make great gains in society. Do I believe, however, that we can stand down and be complacent about what has been achieved? Absolutely not. If this week has revealed anything, it’s that gender equality, any form of equality, in fact, cannot be taken for granted. Intolerance, ignorance, and anger still coalesce in ways both subtle and overt, and sometimes in ways shockingly violent. As concerned and caring citizens of this wonderful country, let’s commit to paying attention to what happens around us, and agree to speak out against discrimination whenever and wherever it occurs. Let’s engage our sons and daughters in meaningful conversations that will build the tools and the courage they will need to tackle whatever their future and the future of our country holds.