March 8, today, is International women’s day.
Today I reflect on some early career experiences that shaped my thinking about women’s rights. Most of these happened in the late 60s and early 70s.
I know that my history in the workforce is not unique. The incidents I’m describing may seem trivial to some –yet each experience shaped my thinking about gender equality. I could write another post about the opportunities and successes I had.
Be warned readers, this is a rather long and rambling post!
Early Career Experiences and Women’s Rights
Equality in the workplace. I’m proud of one small piece of advocacy that happened when I got my first job after completing the MSW degree. On my first day, along with another new hire (male), I attended an orientation for a briefing on workplace benefits. We were told about life insurance of up to three times the annual salary for men and two times the annual salary for women.
I was young and impertinent. I asked if my life was not as valuable as that of my male colleague. The answer was that men would need more insurance to support a wife and family. To the credit of the male child psychiatrist who was the director of this small children’s mental health centre, he listened to my objections and looked into the policy. Three months later he announced a change that equalized the amount of life insurance to which everyone was entitled.
Equality at Financial Institutions. Shortly after starting that job, I applied for a credit card. I was earning a good salary and had no debts. There were no problems with the application nor the required interview with the credit officer at the bank until he asked me to take the application home for my husband’s endorsement. My husband had to agree to me having a credit card!
I argued that I was the applicant and not my husband as he had his own card. Unfortunately, I didn’t win that argument and it was years until I got a credit card as I refused to get the endorsement. When I finally got a credit card, it was for an account jointly held by both my husband and me! No victory here!
Sexual Violence and Harassment. Between completing my bachelor’s degree at age 20 and starting graduate school, I had a job with the Government of Canada. One of the requirements was to travel to a nearby province for a week of training at a regional centre. Several of the new recruits went to this training along with one of the managers.
We were billeted on one floor of a large hotel in shared rooms. We were surprised and shocked when the manager prowled through the hotel floor knocking on doors of females while exposing himself and asking for a meeting. My memory is that when my roommate opened the door and saw this guy with his privates exposed, she laughed and shut the door quickly.
This distressing experience left us bewildered and shaken. We realized there was no work meeting yet we were too frightened to report this. Was it workplace harassment? Was there bullying by this manager? There were no laws around sexual harassment in the workplace in the late 60s. Memories of the training are long gone, but the memory of this inappropriate behaviour remains.
Equal pay for equal work. In Ontario where I live, pay equity legislation was passed in 1987. This legislation requires employers to pay men and women at the same rate for work that is judged as equal in value. This legislation was forward-looking but employers found loopholes and took years to make changes.
Throughout my career, I was aware of the pay gaps that existed at every level of income among highly educated managers and leaders. Women in leadership positions have few comparators. I can’t relive the past nor ruminate about salary gaps that may have existed but I worry that women at senior levels continue to earn less than males. Lower earnings are unfair. Lower earnings also affect the accrual of pension benefits. Many women in leadership roles are still caught in this gender-based trap.
International women’s day also makes me wonder about barriers and issues my granddaughter will experience.
A large gender pay gap continues to exist in Ontario and in Canada, especially for Indigenous, racialized and immigrant women. This gap is evident when one considers traditional female-dominated occupations such as child care work or personal service work and compares compensation rates in these occupations to compensation in traditionally male-dominated roles.
As I watch Canadian female soccer players and hockey players win gold medals at world events, I cheer for them. My heart sinks, though, when I realize how little financial support they receive for training and travel as compared to males playing at similar levels of competition. There is no sports equity in Canada so why are we surprised when most girls don’t pursue sports vigorously?
Great strides have occurred in terms of learning and education for women. Girls are encouraged to enter STEM programs at university. Skilled trades are opening to female apprentices. Non-traditional careers actively recruit young women.
Yet in most traditional male occupations women account for less than 10% of employees. Yes, we see women operating cranes and getting plumber’s licenses — but how many are there? What are the retention rates for women who pursue such careers?
Human rights laws may help to end persistent gender inequalities but the marketing of sexualized female stereotypes affects even very young girls. Last summer my 8-year-old granddaughter begged for a bikini-style bathing suit only to be disappointed with the tank style that her mother bought! We all understand that the unrealistic Barbie doll figure has affected the self-image of so many young girls causing many to engage in unrealistic dieting and affecting self-confidence.
I know that many readers will argue that tremendous gains in women’s rights have been realized. These gains are important. I know that I benefitted from strides made by courageous women who called out inequities.
I’ll close with the famous words of Robert Frost who reminded us of ‘miles to go before I sleep’. On this International Women’s day and on every other day, let’s stay vigilant in seeking true equality for women and girls.