Getting it Right – Women’s Day

If you were to compile a list of the gains New Brunswick women have made in recent decades, it would be long and impressive. We have more rights, and greater autonomy and standing.

However, if you were also to list the issues that should be addressed in New Brunswick to bring about equality between the sexes, that list, too, would be long, and somewhat similar to the first list. That’s because the job isn’t finished, often because it is being done badly. For instance:

Quality child care remains unaffordable for many and unaffordable child care is about as useful as a washed-out bridge when trying to get to work.

We know how to take a sexual assault complaint. We just don’t seem to know what to do with it.

We have shown we care for female victims of male violence, but we don’t do much to prevent the violence before it starts (which, if you think about it, is kind of creepy).

We wanted jobs, but we weren’t told so many jobs earn you poverty.

What is it about “I’m the boss of my own body” that we don’t understand?

With every election, we get the same results: little diversity, even though every election the main parties say they really, really, yes, really want more female candidates. How can that be? Don’t incantations work?

We remember the first time we are threatened with equality. Here’s a recent example from that « You want equality, you’ll get it with a vengeance! » school of thuggery: when some traditionally female jobs – such as child care administration and transition house work – were evaluated via a « made-in-New Brunswick » pay equity analysis, they were found to pay too much (even though they paid less than similar jobs in other provinces with similar costs of living). The government – both stripes – said they had « adapted » the generally accepted methods for evaluating pay equity, but this had the result of reducing the chance of a salary adjustment to female workers. Some call it an adaptation, I call it rigging the game.

Another recent entry in the « ok, we’ll do it, but you won’t like it » file:

Five years ago this month, David Alward’s Conservatives shocked the province by abolishing the Council, months after being elected on a platform to « work with the Advisory Council on the Status of Women » (I still smile at my naive relief on hearing that). Then, having failed to quell the reaction, they tried to smooth things over before facing another election, by creating an internal committee (Voices) to advise on women’s issues, calling it independent. However, no legislation, no Order-in-Council, no authority to back it up. The old political attempt at « You asked for something, this is something ». Governments know how to create an independent agency, and they knew this was not it.

I was the executive director during the Council’s last ten years, and had worked for it for some 20 years before that. I remember showdowns with government representatives at various levels who were upset by a position or project of the Council because it was politically problematic, inconvenient, or just feminist. We were able to persist and prevail, and continue on our road when we said, « Golly, we’re just trying to fulfill our legislated mandate because if we don’t do our job, you and women will be all over us for taking public funding but not doing the job. »

Try doing that when you don’t have that piece of paper. It’d be like finding yourself in a strange country without identification.

Then came Brian Gallant and the Liberal government which promised to fix this and restore independent status to Voices. Given what appears to be the Gallant government’s attitude towards independent watch-dog agencies, it might actually not be helpful to bring this up. To be ignored is maybe to be let off easy. Still, it’s been two years since the new committee, Voices, was created, and we haven’t heard anything. The likely reasons are the lack of structure and legal status. I raise this because there are a lot of issues that need to be addressed; I can give you a list. It’s long.

One final word: the provincial government recently announced it has begun doing gender-based analysis as part of its policy planning. Each option government is studying will be analyzed for its impact on gender equality. However, the analysis documents will not be made public because they are « advice to Cabinet ». That’s one way of doing it. Not the transparent or trustworthy way. The government should have chosen to have it done by an independent body, but even if it is done in-house, the research, at least, could be made public, and not the advice to Cabinet based on the research. Otherwise, and especially in the absence of any visible effect on policy of these analyses, I assume that it’s still business as usual. We have no reason to believe that anything more than a checkbox was added to ministers’ briefing notes: GBA done? Check. The government hasn’t said whether it is going ahead with policies that have a positive, negative, or neutral impact on gender equality, so what do we know? I don’t doubt that analysis is being done, but we should insist on seeing the analyses and knowing the process. That’s not cynicism; it’s experience.

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