Podcast: The Public Discourse

Episode 3: Advancing Gender Equality

We talk with Jessica Prince and Thea Symonds about the implications of the principle of gender equality for how we think about work, childcare, education, and family life after COVID-19. Prince is a lawyer and board member of the Women's Legal Education and Action Fund, and Symonds is Coordinator for the Violence Against Women Coordinating Committee in Perth County.

Read the Transcript

This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity

LAURA FRIEDMANN (Media Officer, Officer of Public Affairs): I'm delighted to be joined by Thea Symonds and Jessica Prince for this episode of The Public Discourse. In this series of the podcast we are talking with people about the principles we need for a post-pandemic world. I'm really looking forward to talking with you both about the principle of gender equality, and how we need to apply it more fully, and what implications it has for how we think about the present and the future. But first, I was wondering if you could briefly introduce yourselves? Jessica do you want to start us off?

JESSICA PRINCE (Lawyer; Board Member, Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund): Sure. Thank you so much for having me. My name is Jessica Prince, as mentioned, and I am a lawyer by training. But the last few years I've been working in public policy in the federal government. I've just moved back home to British Columbia and I'm doing some public policy work here in the province of British Columbia with the provincial government. And I've always been very passionate about gender equality; something that's animated my professional life, both working in environments that didn't really have a lot of it, and in others that did. And in that vein, I've been doing a bit of volunteer work with an organization called the Women's Legal Education and Action Fund. That is a national organization of mostly women lawyers that advocate for the rights of women and girls by using sections of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to make arguments in Canadian courts about how our laws should become applied and interpreted in a more gender equal way.

LAURA: Thank you. And Thea?

THEA SYMONDS (Coordinator, Stop Violence Against Women Coordinating Committee, Perth County): First of all, I wanted to say thank you for inviting me onto this podcast. I'm very honoured to be talking with both of you. My name is Thea Symonds, and I currently work as a coordinator for violence against womencoordinating committees in Ontario. I work with thesecommittees to strengthen communication, identify system barriers, address service gaps and track violence against women-related trends in the region.

I've been working on a few different initiatives withthe provincial network for ending violence against women. One has been with a focus on building a survivor’s advisory network in the province, and another to design a consistent human trafficking data collection system. So, I've been spending the past ten years working for women's rights and gender equality research.

And I also have twin daughters; beautiful twin daughters who are now four years old. So I find it interesting that my days are spent in consultation with organization directors and agency leads in the community, and also engaging pre-schoolers in conversations about their capacity, and raising them to be champions of justice through children’s devotionals and Bahá’í moral children’s classes.

So it's an interesting dynamic which I try to navigate cohesively. I find both find incredibly important and integral in the advancing opportunities for women and achieving gender equality overall.

LAURA: Absolutely. Thank you. And Jessica, you're also a mother right?

JESSICA: I am. Sorry, I need to weave that into my bio. I am. I have a fourteen-month-old son who is delightful, and has just learned how to walk, and is making our lives infinitely more challenging as we realize that our house is not baby proofed.

LAURA: Yeah. I'm a mother of an eight-year-old boy and a ten-year-old girl. So I really appreciate that we have this shared experience between the three of us of working in advancing gender equality, but also living it daily in our lives as mothers and trying to figure out how to, as Thea said, raise up champions of justice.

So, to start us off, Jessica, I wanted to ask you: We've seen significant advances in establishing legal equality of women and men; however, as you've seen, this pandemic has exposed many of the ways in which inequality remains embedded in the workplace and family life. So could you talk about what you have observed over the past several months around this issue?

JESSICA: Yeah, absolutely. I think that is a really astute observation. Formal legal equality, as between women and men in Canada is, not entirely but largely, has been won. On the books we've got legal equality between men and women enshrined in our constitution. It's in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And there's a whole body of law that supports and interprets that.

That's not to say that there aren't still legal fights to be won, but we've mostly made progress in that way. But that legal or formal equality doesn't always translate on the ground, obviously, in terms of substantive equality or the actual lived experiences of women in Canada. And even before the pandemic, it's not news to either of you that there are inequalities that women suffer in this country in terms of a persistent gender pay gap, in terms of women disproportionately taking on unpaid care-giving roles in the home - both for children, or sick family members, or elderly family members. And so what I've noticed is that the pandemic hasn't necessarily changed that dynamic, it has just shone a light on inequalities that were already there. And in a lot of cases, it has exacerbated those inequalities.

So you may have heard the term - and I don't love it, but people keep using the term 'she-cession', to describe what's going on. A recession that's impacted women, a 'she-cession'. I find the term a little bit cutesy and a little cringe-worthy, but I like to use it because I do think it describes what's going on in our economy right now in terms of how this pandemic is affecting Canadian families and Canadian communities.

So, since the pandemic was declared back in March… And what are we now? In August. We've witnessed these incredibly historic job losses across Canada, but if you dig into the numbers, those job losses have been disproportionately suffered by women.

I personally know many women who have had full-time roles that have now decided it's easier for their family to move that to a part-time role. Or, they were on a maternity leave and they were going to go back to work, but it's a lot easier for them to just not return to work and stay at home. Or, I know women that have left their jobs altogether. They've looked at their family unit and said, "You know what? My (often male) partner makes more money than I do. He's going to stay in the labour force. I'm going to stay home and care for the kids. I'm not sure I trust sending my children to a daycare right now during a pandemic."

This is happening all across the country. And you have to wonder how many of these women are ever going to return to the traditional labour force. It's not to say that these aren't rational decisions that women are making. I, of course, respect the decisions of all these women, and everybody has to make the right decision for their family, but it's happening at a societal level. And so we shouldn't be shocked when economists are saying this is a - the other term that makes me laugh - it's a 'she-cession', but we're witnessing a 'he-covery'. The recovery is being enjoyed by men. It's not being enjoyed by women. So, that's what I've been seeing, Laura, and I think it should worry everyone. I don't just think it should worry women.

LAURA: Hm hmm. Wow. I hadn't heard those terms of 'she-cession' and 'he-covery'. That's really interesting.

JESSICA: I should say, I didn't come up with them. There are all kinds of Canadian academics that are using them. I just keep reading them in the newspaper.

LAURA: There are many consequences to this pandemic and impacts on women. And women, as you said, tend to be the first ones to feel the impact. And one of the tragic consequences of the pandemic lock-down was a rise in domestic violence. This was something that many experts predicted ahead of time, and it seems anecdotally that this has indeed happened; unfortunately. So, Thea, you work in this area, and from your perspective, what has a pandemic shown us that we need to do as a society to better protect women from abuse?

THEA: Hm hmm. Well, as you said, since the start of COVID-19, there hasn't just been a rise in domestic violence cases, but the violence experienced has increased in intensity and severity. We already know that domestic violence existed at alarming rates in our society. The social restrictions and conditions placed on people during COVID-19 - including the financial stress, the increased time spent with an abuser at home, limited access when reaching out to services, all of these things and many more - contributed to an amplification of this already existing ill in our society.

And the COVID-19 pandemic also exposed what we knew, that home is not always the safest place for many women. Which is why violence in the home was heightened to such an extent. But I think now we have a unique opportunity to confront this social ill and redesign the social fabric to be more conducive to reducing violence, and enhancing preventative protection in matters for women. We now have the opportunity to build sustainable and integrated structures that can both protect women from violence, but also eliminate the conditions that have allowed violence to continue.

I'm going to talk about education. We know from the Bahá’í Faith of the capacity of education to transform people and uplift mankind, and we can all be better educated on the root causes of domestic violence and gender-based violence. Alongside recognizing the causes, we can also be aware of the consequences that this type of violence brings, not only to the individual, but also to the family and to society at large. We can recognize the urgency of this issue as well. We can learn about how these issues are hindering the equality of women and men; including the stereotype of gender roles and accepting violence as a form of conflict resolution, and to learn about the conditions that will enhance that gender equality. And with these understandings we can build our capacity to respond to violence.

And I'd say one of the important ways for us to do this, and to understand more about these issues, is to include the voice of survivors, of people who were victims of violence, in the process of addressing the systemic issues. And not only are survivors not often included in the conversation, but they're often times, as you know, not believed about the abuse that they're experiencing. So we need to listen to survivors and also work together with them.

And beyond supporting survivors, I think that we can advocate for the advancement of women and letgender equality in every sphere; that there is a need to change the social practices and behaviours that have been deemed acceptable, but extremely harmful. And supporting them perpetuates this type of violence. We can all be engaged in confronting outdated gender stereotypes and toxic masculinity; that aggression and violence, be it physical, or emotional, technological, are no longer acceptable behaviours of our boys and men.

And I think a lot of this work can be done by mobilizing youth to resist these social norms and promote other moral practices. If we can encourage our boys to become agents of change, and allowing one another to be aligned with their true moral selves - we can encourage our girls to see how valuable and important their voices are. I think we need to have our girls feel safe enough to call out the violence that they see, and the violence that they endure around them, and to raise the conversation about the capacity of girls in contributing to the betterment of our society.

Sorry that was a bit long.

LAURA: No. That's great. I really value your experience at all of these levels because you kind of act as a bridge for all of these coalitions and organizations. Right? And what you mentioned about the grassroots, and at the local level being so important. And that actually takes me to thinking about policy; a change that has to happen at the level of policy, in addition to all that you said Thea.

So Jessica, you have extensive experience working in public policy. And what do you think are the public policy issues that are most important to advancing gender equality? So are there any areas of policies that you think are not getting enough attention right now?

JESSICA: Yes. (laughs)

LAURA: Probably a lot.

JESSICA: Yes. Before I answer that though, I think as sort of a preliminary matter, I want to talk a bit about a framework that I think our policy makers should be applying to all the issues they're tackling. I think they should have been doing this before, but I think they should be doing it now more than ever, because we know the pandemic is having a gender impact; not just in Canada but all over the world. It's more important than ever that our policy makers are thinking about issues in a gendered way.

For me, in terms of the policy issue that's not getting enough attention – and it's never gotten enough attention – I would say childcare. We have known for decades in Canada that the one big policy change that will move the dial for Canadian women, getting women into the labour force – if they want to be in the labour force – is having access to affordable childcare.

Many, many, many, many Canadian academics, almost all of them women, have been making the case for this for literally my entire life since the early eighties. We know that where it exists, like, in the province of Quebec, women's labour force participation is the highest of any province in Canada. And it's not a coincidence. Like if you look at Quebec before they had comprehensive childcare, and after, the numbers go up. And it's because of the childcare.

I think this is more important now than ever. And we don't have great data on this since the pandemic started, but some academics suggest that somewhere between a third and a half of childcare spaces in this country are at risk of closing permanently because of the effects of the pandemic. Yeah. It's like the data is very patchy because of the pandemic, but there's a lot of childcare spaces that are at risk of just not being there in the coming months.

If this was the case - and I've heard academics saying this, I don't want to take credit for it but it really resonated with me - if this was the case for our bridges, or our roads, if like half of the roads in Canada were at risk of crumbling and people couldn't drive on them anymore, we better believe we'd have a national strategy for our infrastructure. But because it's about childcare, there's nothing there.

I think we need to think about childcare in the way that we think about critical infrastructure. It's critical social infrastructure for Canadian women and Canadian families. And it just boggles my mind that we don't have a national strategy on this, and that governments aren't talking about this every day. I think part of the problem is we don't have enough women in politics, but that's like a whole other conversation for another day. (laughs)

LAURA: Right. And that feeds into the whole, well, if their childcare closes, now women are out of the workforce and it just spirals down more and more. And… Is there any other area of policy that you would want to talk about?

JESSICA: I could talk about…

LAURA: Just putting it out there.

JESSICA: No. Totally. I could talk about it all day. I mean look. I think, for me, childcare resonates because of the age of my child. For my friends who have school aged children, and depending on which province they're in, the province's school re-opening plan is a huge topic.

LAURA: I mean that's the place I'm in. And even that brings up questions of barriers at different levels of society. Right? Like, not all parents can afford to create these private pods, or have to create it. Not all parents have the language, or the ability to be teachers, or to suddenly drop everything and make sure that they can run curriculum; some our newcomers and immigrants that don't know the language, that don't understand the system. So it seems to be exposing all of these gaps, and weaknesses, and fragile parts that we have.

Okay. So, Thea I know that you spoke already a little bit about education and the necessarychanges in culture. So feel free to answer this however it feels best. So going beyond policy, how do you think we need to deal with the issue of gender equality at the level of culture and education? I know you mentioned a few things, but domestic violence is in one respect a symptom of a society that doesn't adequately educate men. And how do you think we can get to the root of this problem?

THEA: I think it's a correct view to see domestic violence as a symptom rather than a disease itself. In the Bahá’í Faith we view the essential value of men and women to be the same in the eyes of God. So where the only differences in achievement and aptitude between the genders throughout history are a product of continued oppression and denial of opportunity.

So, in one sense we educate boys that girls are subservient, but at the same time, the power of expression which girls have cultivated relating to relationships and emotional matters has not been cultivated in the boys; and then men as well. So this leaves them with a sense of false dichotomy, of believing that violence is a useful and acceptable tool for achieving whatever outcome they desire, in specifically in a relationship as well, rather than using reason or emotional control, or other means that also include empathy.

And so I'd say that one way that has been proven impactful is engaging boys and young men in groups and programs that help them recognize these social pressures; such as, how masculinity is intertwined, and in many cases, equated with power and violence. And how these social pressures and these norms, these ideologies, are placed on them. And also to provide a space to talk about dealing with these pressures. So, engaging young men I think to assist one another, to practice non-violent behaviour, and to reinforce positive behaviours, will allow them to become allies, and protagonists, or champions of gender equality, rather than perpetrators of violence.

Could you hear them in the background?

LAURA: Yeah.

JESSICA: I could hear them.

LAURA: But that's fine. That's…

THEA: Is it okay? Or should… Is that going to be edited out?

LAURA: No I think we should keep it. That's the pandemic mom life, right? We're all in the same boat. We always have our calls, and like little ones climbing all over us. So that's just the reality.

Jessica I wanted to ask you a similar question, and you touched on this earlier at the beginning. So it's around work, in what ways have we conceived of work that systematically disadvantage women? So how does work need to change?

You know before the pandemic there was a lot of discussion about how to make work more flexible, including remote work, allowing both women and men to be more able to achieve this work-life balance that we all struggle with. Well, you know, when kids are at home, it doesn't always work out that way. So do we have to go deeper in our analysis of how we can change work in light of the principle of gender equality?

JESSICA: I think this is a really, really important question. I watched a talk the other day on Zoom. Which is, I guess, how we all watch talks now. It was being given by Julia Gillard who was the Prime Minister of Australia. And she was talking about this exactly. She said that she still believes that working from home is ultimately going to be good for gender equality in the future. And she said that she likes this de-emphasis on what she calls 'presentee-ism' in the office. The idea that you have to just physically be in your office, and your boss has to see you working at your desk. She thinks that will help women, and specifically working mothers.

But her caveat to all of that was that you have to have the necessary supports in place. So you can't be expected to be homeschooling your kids from home, and also working from home. So obviously the support piece is really crucial and is the thing that's missing right now.

For me, part of the answer to your question Laura is about parental leave policies. I think that's like a huge, huge key to gender equality in the workplace, and people actually taking them; and men taking them. When I worked as a lawyer in private practice, I worked in Toronto at two different law firms. And I was a young lawyer. I was obviously a young female lawyer, and I never worked in a workplace that had a parental leave policy that I was made aware of. There might have been one, but it was never brought to my attention.

So in my experience of private practice in Toronto, I think, was pretty typical for the time. Which is that there were plenty of young women; very, very few senior women. So almost all my bosses were men. And when I moved to work for the federal government in Ottawa – I was working firstly at the Department of Justice – and all of a sudden I was surrounded by female lawyers; many of them senior. It was like a weird bizarro world where it was like this is where all the women lawyers are. They are all working in the federal government. And lo, lo and behold, the federal government has a very clear parental leave policy for both men and women; like, on the books. They make you quite aware of it. It's very generous. You can take twelve months, or eighteen months. It's basically the same amount of money, but you can smooth that out over a year, or eighteen months, and your job is protected. When you come back to work, you have your same job, nobody has taken all your files away from you. Like, everybody's happy to have you back.

And I don't think that this is a coincidence. Right? I think that women in my particular profession looked at their options and thought, where can I have a great career, but also have the family that I want? And it's usually not in the private sector. And I think the big difference there is parental leave policies.

I've always been really envious of Scandinavian countries that have mandatory paternity leave because I love the idea. And we talked a bit about challenging social norms. I love the idea of normalizing men taking time off after children are born; if you have a heterosexual relationship when your children are young, and sharing in that parenting responsibility.

I know plenty of young dads - when I was working in the private sector for example - who would have loved to have taken time off when their female partner had their child, or their children, but felt that they couldn't, or felt that they couldn't take the full amount of time. If they were given three months, they worried that if they took the full three months, they'd be seen to be not serious about their job, they weren't partnership material. And so they didn't.

And I do think it's like a collective action problem where the only way to eliminate that kind of stigma is to get tons of men taking parental leave. And I don't know if we do that by just offering it to people. I wonder if we need a more radical approach like in these Scandinavian countries. Where they say, "Look, like every man has to take like three months, or six months. If you want to have parental leave at all, the father has to take it too."

As I like think about it more, I'm like, "Yeah, why not? Let's try it."

LAURA: Or even maybe some men don't even know in their own minds that this is a possibility. Like the way that they've been raised, or the way that society functions is that it's not even something that belongs to me, or that it should be part of my experience. So even breaking that culturally, right? That notion that parental leave is only for mothers.

JESSICA: Totally. Totally. And I think you only break that sort of cycle by having lots of fathers take the leave and realizing, you know, like yes it's really hard, but it's also really, really wonderful, and an opportunity to bond with your child, and grow to love your child.

LAURA: So, following on this, clearly both men and women need to be part of the effort to eradicate domestic violence, and fully establishing gender equality. I'm going back to the domestic violence question. However, you mentioned this earlier as well, there's also a role of children right? And how we educate our boys and girls. So, Thea, where do you see the opportunities to inculcate a set of values in children that will help to eradicate domestic violence for future generations? It's a long-term question.

THEA: It is. As we know, as parents and early educators of our children, that this is an essential part of the socialization process for young girls and boys. That creating an environment where the expectation is set for children to practice their emotional regulation, for both girls and boys to be given the same opportunities, and in some cases, for girls to be given priority to advance their learning. That these practices can help girls and boys normalize the idea that they have equal capacity; even though their capacities might be diverse and varied, and that it's still equal in value, equally in society.

And at home parents can, this is a very simple, one simple solution, that parents can share duties around the house. They can create opportunities for the children to participate in activities that society might have long held to be the arena of one gender or the other. Allowing boys to dance… Allow both boys and girls to participate in practices that are usually held in the arena of one gender or the other. Like encouraging girls to study sciences and maths, and participate in sports. These practices can be important in establishing the idea that both genders are equally deserving of care.

LAURA: So I want to ask a million other questions, but I know we only have so much time. But I was actually wondering what… I wanted to ask this to both of you, what are your hopes moving forward? Obviously we all want gender equality, but when you think of the next six months, or year, within the context of the pandemic, what do you hope for? What would you like to dream up?

JESSICA: I can start. I think we've talked about this already in the answers to like almost all these questions, but when I was a kid, feminism was for girls. It was like, my mom was a feminist. My sister and I were raised to be feminists. My grandmother is a feminist. I don't want feminism to just be a women's issue anymore. I totally agree with everything that has already been said. Like, everyone has to be raised with feminist principles, and gender equality is not just something that matters to women; it matters to everyone.

And, you know, we've talked about toxic masculinity. Gender inequality hurts boys too; it hurts men too. And I think we need to frame the conversation that way more. I was guilty of this as anyone. I'm on the board of an organization that's all women. And I totally understand why that is and why we advocate for women on behalf of women. But we as an organization - and all feminist organizations - have to do a better job of engaging men and boys, and making broader society understand that we're all only going to get better if we're all part of this conversation, and we work on this aim together.

So I don't know if that's specifically about the pandemic, but when I think about the 'she-cession', when I think about the rise in domestic violence that's happened over the pandemic, I just hope that men and boys are talking about this and caring about it as much as the three of us are, and lots of other women are.

LAURA: Right. Very well said. Thea what do you, what are your hopes?

THEA: I hope that during this time, especially during the times of difficulty and distress many are experiencing with the pandemic, just to remember that as a cough is a symptom of COVID-19, that violence is a symptom of this morallacking that we have in our society; and that it's a consequence rather than a permanent feature of our society. Which sometimes is hard to see in a crisis. And that we should continually bring to the forefront that we already have the knowledge, and the understanding, and the capacity, to change things for the better. That breaking down barriers that impede gender equality, it has been done, and it continues to be done across Canada and the world over. And echoing what Jessica said as well that ending violence against women is not simply a women's issue that is to be addressed by women alone, that everyone has a role in turning gender equality from a desired goal to a shared reality. We just need to do the work.

LAURA: Thank you. Thank you both for sharing these really insightful and thought provoking ideas. And, like you, I also hold the hope that we can reconcile this gender inequality together, not just women for women, but women with men together. And I really hope that the next few months for all of us amidst this pandemic show an openness to talk about these difficulties, and a willingness to change, and to advance, and to kind of challenge our old notions, and try to reinvent, reimagine, and rebuild our society.

So thank you so much for joining us on today's episode of the Public Discourse.

JESSICA: Thanks for having us.

THEA: Yes. Thank you. I appreciate everything you both shared, and the realities that you shed light on. Thank you very much.