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Premier Attends Guelph's International Women's Day

Web posted on March 18, 2014

By Emily Blake

On the morning of March 7, Guelph and area community members including political figures, business people, and school board representatives gathered in honour of International Women's day to discuss women's economic empowerment. Guelph Education Minister Liz Sandals, and Ontario's current and first female premier Kathleen Wynne were in attendance to discuss increasing economic opportunities for women, with a particular focus on education. Marva Wisdom, principal and founder of Wisdom Consulting hosted the event and monitored the discussion.

In Premier Wynne's opening statement, she noted that women account for half of Ontario's workforce; make up three quarters of the newly self-employed, and own 20% of small businesses. However, women on average still make only 72 cents to every dollar that men make, and remain underrepresented in specific fields. Women represent only 3% of those employed in the skilled trades, 14% of those in mining and exploration careers, and 10% of professional engineers. Furthermore 40% of corporations have no female representation on their boards.

Premier Wynne also highlighted the importance of validating other kinds of experience that women traditionally have including raising children and being a community volunteer. She also raised the issue of precarious underpaid work including personal support work and home care, which is becoming an increasingly important part of the health care system. Many Ontarians in general are facing employment challenges as a result of the economic downturn.

Following opening statements, the conversation was opened to audience members to discuss their concerns and ideas. The conversation was guided around the key challenges facing women in the labour market, the role that stakeholders should play, and proposed solutions for the local and provincial levels.

Issues raised as barriers to women's economic empowerment included the need for reliable, accessible, and affordable childcare for mothers. The extended day option, after school programs, and nutrition for learning programs were highlighted as positive options for parents and children. Also discussed were the challenges posed by part time employment contracts, as employees have no access to benefits and lack security. Concerns were also voiced about the largely male and ageing agricultural and food industry, which is a large contributor to the GDP. In addition, the issue of affordable access to post-secondary education was raised.

Mentorship was the main theme of discussion around practices to improve economic wellbeing. School board representatives stated that many students expressed a desire for greater access to unconventional opportunities. Also proposed were embedding more creative thinking in education and giving students the permission to innovate, both of which are valuable skills for business. The effective use of technology in education was also highlighted as positive for students, especially those with disabilities.

A representative from Health for Seven Generations, made a very powerful and significant statement that injected some much-needed diversity into the discussion. She discussed the challenges facing Aboriginal people in Canada including housing, childcare, education and health. She noted how it is a common public misconception that First Nations people receive special treatment and privileges in Canada. In reality the trickle down effect fails to reach those who need it most. She also highlighted the high rates of violence against young women, with a crisis of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada. Furthermore, Aboriginal women lack representation and positive role models in the media.

This comment really highlighted for me the many problems that exist in our society as a result of power and privilege. Although it was wonderful to be in a room filled with such inspiring and intelligent women, I could not help but notice those who were missing from the room. It would have been beneficial to have more diversity in terms of gender, age, ability, economic status and people of colour, to gain a better-rounded discussion of the needs of all women.

There were many other issues that were not touched upon, as only so much could be discussed within a limited time frame. Other barriers to womans' economic empowerment include gender-based violence, young and single motherhood, health and addiction issues, and the challenges posed from having a disability. There was also no discussion of the challenges facing many recent graduates, including myself, in terms of finding meaningful employment. Many graduates are unable to find careers in their fields of study and remain unemployed or underemployed while trying to pay off student loans.

I also could not help but think of the unique challenges that migrant workers face while trying to improve their economic wellbeing. In particular I thought of the federal live-in caregiver program, which has been criticized for devaluing domestic labour and exposing women to precarious living and working conditions. The need to focus on these issues is increasingly prevalent due to the globalized nature of the economy. Migrant workers face challenges such as language and cultural barriers, limited access to health care and social programs, and often-unstable working conditions.

In the end, I felt that more could have been achieved from this event. Perhaps it is my naivet about the nature of politics and business that allowed me to have such high expectations. Hopefully the networking opportunity this event created will generate partnerships and further discussion between stakeholders. However, if opportunities like these continue to exclude marginalized individuals, there will continue to be a disconnect between public policy and the people that it is intended to reach.