“Sugar and spice and everything nice….” You know the rest, don’t you? That message, delivered to girls from the time they understand the tacit meaning of pink and blue, underpins and undermines the long and frustrating fight for gender equality. “Choose to Challenge”, the campaign theme for this year’s International Women’s Day, reminds us that a challenged world is an alert world. By calling out gender bias and inequity, it is hoped we can create a more inclusive society where equal opportunity is the norm rather than the exception.
I want to acknowledge the men who act as allies and champions of women. These are the men who call out off-colour jokes in locker rooms, who challenge sexist comments about a woman’s appearance, who expect women to be at the board room table and listen attentively when they speak.
I want to acknowledge the women who act as allies and champions for other women. Those who believe that another woman’s victory is a cause for celebration, who actively seek out and mentor younger women in the workplace so that the next generation might go farther, the women who challenge the narrative that leadership models are male models and who, like Jacinda Arden, Prime Minister of New Zealand, demonstrate that strength and compassion can go hand in hand.
Perhaps it’s because I know so many incredible allies, both men and women, that I’m always confounded and discouraged when faced with the persistent gender gap that remains in North America and elsewhere around the world. Canadian women earn $0.87 for every dollar earned by a man . When we consider marginalized groups the situation worsens with that number falling to $0.67 for racialized women, $0.65 for Indigenous women, and $0.54 for women with disabilities .
Gender inequity persists even in areas where the data shows women have made gains. In medicine, for example, the percentage of female physicians in Canada has grown from 11% in 1978 to 43% in 2018, yet women are overrepresented in the three lowest earning medical specialties and account for only 8% of the province’s highest billing physicians . Women are underrepresented in leadership in academic medicine, as well, accounting for only two of the 17 deans of Canada’s medical schools and less than one quarter (22%) of full professors .
I’ve long realized that having allies and champions is important but sadly not enough to create meaningful change. The barriers to equality women face are systemic, woven into the fabric of our society, the walls of our boardrooms and the brickwork of our oldest institutions. Professor Mabel Abraham of Columbia Business School argues that we focus too much on surface manifestations of inequity without understanding the root causes. For example, we encourage or even legislate companies to put more women on boards of companies but don’t examine the reason fewer women are in the C-suite or upper management. We legislate equal pay without asking why it takes an act of government to ensure fairness. To quote Abraham, “Understanding these underlying mechanisms — the drivers of gender equality — is a necessary precursor to helping companies develop effective solutions to reverse the gendered patterns with which we are so familiar.”
I would also argue that it’s harder to create engaged discussion and a commitment to problem solving when it comes to systemic discrimination because it’s weighty work, highly complicated and easier to dismiss than to address. It’s easy to rally around the female news reporter who is publicly and sexually harassed on the street by some witless passerby. Social media blows up, public outrage is aplenty and cries for the man to be fired multiply. It’s easy to be a champion for women when the offense is so evident but isn’t that the minimum we should do? Doesn’t that feel a bit like “performance advocacy”, when we jump on the hashtag bandwagon and join the chorus of outrage? What about the harder causes to champion?
Let’s consider, instead, the female employee who complains to management that she’s being paid less than her male counterpart, as written about in a recent article in the Globe and Mail that examined the pay and power gap at Bay Street’s top law firms. What is evident from the article is the systemic way that such gaps occur. I suspect no evil overlord is intentionally paying less to women. Rather, it’s a manifestation of an “old boys” network that includes and rewards those who are typically white and male, thereby controlling (perhaps unintentionally) who ends up at the top. A woman who questions the outcomes is subject to individualized and close scrutiny – she went on maternity leave, she doesn’t like to golf, we assumed she couldn’t work late with kids at home. The complaint is addressed and rationalization occurs at the level of the individual rather than the system, and the sole complainant (i.e., the woman) is often perceived as trouble. To do otherwise would require a difficult post-mortem on a complex and long-standing system.
I don’t have all the answers to these lingering problems. I do, however, have an idea. Let’s all choose to challenge not only the obvious and blatant acts of discrimination we see around us. Let’s also challenge the assumptions, the protocols and the pathways that lead to power in Canadian society. Or at the very least, let’s not shut down the voices of those women who do, the ones often labelled in the workplace as difficult, ungrateful, loud, unrealistic, too impatient, overly ambitious and unreasonable.
As the Head of a girls’ school I feel a particular responsibility to speak up wherever I can. Perhaps some will find my message too militant, too brash, or simply inconvenient. But the alternative to my speaking up is to let down those incredible girls and young women I see in the halls of Trafalgar every day. I hope everyone in our community will join me in choosing to challenge.