Young woman in officeSymbols count. They are a powerful force in the slow contest to change attitudes and expectations. When the newly elected liberal government announced they would have equal numbers of women and men in Cabinet, it reset the world of the possible for women in politics in Canada.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright tells a story that illustrates this point. When her daughter remarked on the historic nature of Albright’s appointment, Albright’s granddaughter responded, “So what's the big deal about Grandma Maddy having been Secretary of State? Only girls are Secretaries of State.” Which had been true in the course of her young life. Those appointments shaped her view (and that of her peers) of the world of the possible.

Of course, symbolic changes aren’t enough. If our daughters and granddaughters are going to realize their aspirations, concrete and practical action needs to be taken to remove the barriers that exist. A quick look at the level of women’s representation in public office in Canada demonstrates that we still have a long way to go. Women continue to make up less than a third of elected public officers at the municipal, provincial and federal level. The same is true in workplaces across Canada, where women make up just under a third (32%) of senior managers.1

Do women have less experience? Less education? No. If you take a look at the men and women in the workforce, during their prime working years (ages 25-54), men and women are equally likely to have completed some form of post-secondary education. Raise the bar to a university degree, and women are actually more likely to have one—37% of core working age women in the labour force have completed a university degree, compared to 30% of men in the same group.2 So, let’s put that merit argument to rest. There are plenty of qualified women out there.

Do women have less ambition? Hardly. Women are shouldering higher levels of student debt every year to pursue higher education and entering the workforce in increasing numbers. Yet young women, in particular, aren’t being hired into full-time positions at the same rate as their male peers. Among the young women who are employed in our workforce today, only 45% hold full-time jobs, compared to 60% of men under age 25.And no, it’s not because they are home with a baby. The age at which women are likely to have their first child is 29 years old. This means that something else is happening to these young women at the door to the office.

Something like discrimination. Something like a persistent (and inaccurate) unconscious assumption that men are the breadwinners and leaders of our society, and women are the caregivers. Assumptions that lead women to be promoted more slowly, and less often.

Symbolic moves like those of the new government go some way to shifting public attitudes, but to realize the promise of those gestures, we also need to take a close look at our own behavior—as employers, as voters, as leaders. There’s nothing like a little math to lay bare how we are translating our aspirations into real behavioral changes. Tracking rates of hiring, pay, and promotion (not to mention voting trends) is essential.

Programs that support women leaders are important too. Sheryl Sandberg opened a broad public debate on how women have learned to count themselves out before the contest is run. What cannot be lost in that discussion is equal attention to the very real barriers that women who are ‘leaning in’ face.

Barriers like the pay gap, which is currently getting bigger, not smaller, among full-time workers in Canada.4 Something that means a woman running for office starts out with fewer resources to commit to campaign expenses, not to mention the cost of taking time out from work. Barriers like the double burden of unpaid work performed by women. Women in Canada still spend twice as much time on care work in the home,5 leaving them less hours to commit to paid work and political ambitions.

While we ask young women to lean in, let’s also remember to ask our public and private institutions to reach out, with aspirational and practical support.

“CAN-SIM Table 282-0010: Labour force survey estimates (LFS), by National Occupational Classification for Statistics (NOC-S) and sex, annual.” Ottawa: Statistics Canada.
“CAN-SIM Table282-0004: Labour force survey estimates (LFS), by educational attainment, sex and age group, annual.” Ottawa: Statistics Canada.
“CAN-SIM Table: 282-0002: Full-Time and Part-Time Employment by Sex and Age Group.” Ottawa: Statistics Canada.
“CAN-SIM Table 282-0072: Labour force survey estimates (LFS), wages of employees by type of work, North American Industry Classification System (NAICS), sex and age group, annual.” Ottawa: Statistics Canada.
General Social Survey: Time Use. Ottawa: Statistics Canada.

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