By Denise Leduc
One year ago the newly elected Prime Minister Trudeau made headlines around the world when he appointed a gender balanced cabinet. Later when asked about this he famously quipped, “Because it’s 2015”. This soundbite garnered international attention and seemed hopeful for women in the workplace. Now in the last part of 2016, it’s a good time to reflect on where we are and what we still need to do to make improvements for women in the labour force.
The Centre for Policy Alternatives recently released their report, The Best and Worst Places to be a Woman 2016 in October. The report measures and ranks 25 Canadian cities in five areas including personal security, economic security, health, education, and leadership positions to help determine where there is still work to be done to create a more just and equal society. All of the prairie cities ranked in the bottom half with Regina at #18, Winnipeg at #20, Saskatoon at #21, Edmonton at #22 and Calgary at #23.
Nationally, women earn about 72 per cent of the wages a man would earn for similar work. In some prairie cities this gap is even larger. While Prime Minister Trudeau had the opportunity to make progress in the area of income inequality, he recently delayed pay equity legislation until the end of 2018.
Sexual harassment is another thing that women can experience in the workplace. It can include comments, jokes, and threats of a sexual nature, sex-specific name calling, comments about a person’s physical characteristics, discriminatory comments and unnecessary and unwanted touching. In a 2014 poll, 43 per cent of women reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace, while 20 per cent reported unwanted physical contact while on the job. Furthermore, 24 per cent of those with these experiences report that this had happened within the past two years. Yet four out of five people say they have never reported these incidents due to reasons such as fear, embarrassment and believing the incident was too minor.
For many years I worked in the restaurant and bar industry. Sexism and sexual harassment by other staff, management, and patrons seemed to be part of the job. Sexual advances and comments about our bodies were just a day at the office and the behaviour became normalized to me and the other women I worked with. I have learned our experiences were not unique and things have not improved over the years. A 2013 report by the Ontario Human Rights Commission shows that sexual harassment and discrimination continue to be prevalent in the restaurant industry and continues to be normalized.
Having left that industry years ago and now working in a more insulated environment where most of my dealings are with children, young mothers, and the elderly, I naively thought that things were getting better in the workplace for women. Perhaps because I no longer witnessed sexual harassment in the workplace I mistakenly came to the conclusion that things must be getting better for all women. Then, earlier this year I ran as a candidate in the provincial election.
I started my campaign positive and enthusiastic-ready and willing to go knock on every door, get to every town in my riding and chat with everyone I could. I was shocked to find almost immediately that perfect strangers were completely comfortable saying things to me about my looks and even my body parts. It didn’t matter to them if these were one on one conversations or in front of a group of people. Some people seemed more interested in inquiring about my sex life, relationship status and my role as a mother than where I stood on various issues facing our province.
These sexist attitudes were frustrating. However, the worst experiences were the times when people I met felt that it was okay to act in threatening and intimidating ways towards me. There were some communities where I genuinely felt concerned for my safety. I have never felt so vulnerable. Yet, I would get into my car, cry, and tell myself that I needed to toughen up – this was politics after all. It wasn’t until I started hearing similar stories from other female candidates that I realized the significance of what had been happening to me. When I heard from other women facing these issues I knew immediately what was happening to them was wrong, even though I had blamed myself when these same things had happened to me. I also realized we were having these experiences because we were women.
In July, CBC ran an article where Canada’s three female premiers discussed some the sexism they have faced on the job, and their concerns for other women who have less power in the workplace. Premier Notley has also been the frequent target of threats both online and more recently had a colleague joke about beating her. It strikes me that whether a woman is a minimum wage employee in the service industry or has been elected to lead a province, we can face some of the same issues because we are women.
In my friendships, I have talked with women on some of the sexism and sexual harassment they have faced in the workplace, however no one was comfortable to have me publicly write about their experiences. Yet even though it is 2016, women still experience sexism, sexual harassment and unequal pay in the workplace. Although, it seems that some people do not realize this. Women are currently 48 per cent of Canada’s workforce. We need demand better for these working women. I believe we need to continue having conversations about these issues, sharing our stories, acknowledging there are problems, and looking for concrete steps we can take to address these issues precisely because it’s 2016.