Moments of clarity have this thing about popping up when least expected. When they do appear, though, they have the knack of stopping time and causing you to revisit all of that which recently happened. One such moment happened recently and has some bearing here on the day after International Women’s day.
A Ph.D. student invited me to participate on a panel she was hosting on the general topic of feminism. “Why ask me?” was the obvious question, given—in addition to the obvious fact that I’m not female—my almost complete lack of formal education in that area. It came down to a few simple facts. First, I was available and second, other than me the panel was entirely female—as it should be. I was the token male.
The focus group played out more or less as you’d expect. A series of questions was posed and, one by one, we offered a response. I more or less represented the Canadian perspective inasmuch as I could. Besides me, the other respondents were from France, China (2) and Iran; three Ph.D. candidates, one MBA candidate and me. When my time first came I offered an apology, acknowledging the self-evident fact that my contribution counted for very little. This was not to inform the others—that was completely unnecessary; they were more than capable of judging my (lack of) worthiness. It was rather just to acknowledge that I, too, was aware of my lack of chops and that it would be perfectly alright to vigorously challenge and refute anything I had to say; no need to spare my fragile feelings.
Why, exactly did I do that?
Ah—the moment of clarity. It happened right about the time that I sat down with the group. It was in my “spot” (I coordinate the activities of the Teaching and Learning Commons at the Faculty of Education at Memorial U) since it was an obvious choice for the event and, so, I worked at my desk until I saw the second-last member arrive. They all turned to me, the only male, and I really needed to neutralize that not-so-simple fact. I needed to make sure that everyone else in the group was comfortable with the knowledge that I knew what a complete buffoon I might just be and that it would be okay to just let me have it of the situation arose.
Why? Because males seem to enjoy a privileged place even in Canada, a place often judged by the rest of the world as being somewhat egalitarian in most respects. It hit me: What a crock.
I responded as best I could to the questions that were posed. Rather than talk about feminism I stated outright hat I was a bit more comfortable responding from the position of representing what I did know about the issue of gender equity and decided to leave the distinction undefined. Interestingly enough—and not-to-surprisingly given the simple fact that Canada is SUPPOSED to be founded on the triad of our common English, French and Aboriginal origins (hmmm—now there’s a topic for a future post) I found much in common with the respondent from France and, rather than go into detail I often found myself just saying, “In Canada it tends to be a lot like what Louise just described.” … things like universal suffrage, federal and provincial offices dedicated to womens’ issues and so on.
That only got me so far, though, and at the end I felt compelled to share a bit of my moment. I said, “Here I am—one male surrounded by a group of intelligent and well-educated women. I’ve been careful not to say anything stupid (they all smiled) since, if I had, I would have been immediately…corrected (they laughed a bit).
I continued, “suppose, though, that the gender roles had been reversed and that, instead, there had been just one female. I wonder how things would have been different. I bet that at least one participant would have found it quite acceptable to make some pandering, sexist comment ad that the speaker would have expected grunts of assent from all gathered around, regardless of what that meant for the one female in attendance.”
I let it stand right there for a while and, for a little while, there was nothing said. Everyone just looked at me. The conversation resumed and the focus group eventually ended. My own thoughts continued though.
Canada, being a more-or-less Nordic country that supposedly embraces the idea that we are “of the land” and not masters of it, is often judged as a place where fair mindedness and egalitarianism of all kinds is something that is highly valued. Perhaps that is so but increasingly it’s obvious to me that so much is just plain not right.
Sure, women have the vote here and we have fairly powerful government ministries that represent the “status of women” but, when viewed through a clearer lens so much of it all seems like window dressing; coverings that conceal some inconvenient facts. How about positions of real power and influence—try some of this:
- The House of assembly (the legislative/executive assembly of NL’s Provincial Government) has 48 elected members. Six of them are women.
- C-NLOPB, which helps ensure that the offshore petroleum industry complies with the Federal/Provincial legislative framework, consists of 4 males and 2 females.
- NOIA, Canada’s largest offshore petroleum association has 9 members on its governing board. One of them is a woman.
- NATI represents the province’s advanced tech sector. Its governing board has 9 members. Two of them are women.
- Even school boards—the one place where you might expect a bit of gender equity. The province currently has only two districts, an English board and a French board. The NLESD, the English district, is by far the larger of the two. Its board of trustees consists of 14 members, none of which were chosen democratically. Two of them are women.
But there’s more. The university at which I work has, besides the various traditional academic units numerous professional schools. Try this:
- Engineering and Business are based on a co-op program that alternates academic terms with work terms (internships). These work terms are paid positions.
- Social Work, Nursing, Pharmacy and Education also include integrated internships. These are all unpaid positions.
Notice anything odd? Engineering and Business are male dominated and the ones noted in the second bullet are overwhelmingly female. Not enough to guarantee a causal relationship, acknowledged, but if ever there was a smoking gun, that’s it.
Just last month the provincial government announced a committee charged with redrawing the electoral district boundaries. The committee consists of 5 members, chaired by a judge appointed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Two members were nominated by the governing PC’s and one each was nominated by each of the other two political parties. All five are males. When challenged on this those responsible for the nominations opted for the belligerent (as opposed to rational and truthful) response, “we feel confident that the tasks associated with this panel could be performed equally well by men as by women” a response that has all of the intelligence of “na na na poo poo.” This comment, aside from being more or less devoid of any sense of credibility since it was made by a collection of males, smacks of the same sense of clueless male dominated paternity one sees in the likes of the well-intentioned but still off-base movements such as “Be good to your woman” (no this is not The Onion—that really does exist. YOUR woman??? Really??? Yup.).
There’s such a long road ahead. Sadly, many are unaware of just what it took to even get this far. That which is taken for granted tends to be lost when the pinch comes.
Let’s look for just a minute at politics. My province’s record of women in elected positions is nothing short of shameful, a fact that begs the question, “why is that the case?” Offhand there seem to be two answers. First, there’s the indisputable existence of an active Old Boys’ network. Witness the male-dominated boards, paid work-terms in male-dominated sectors and such. But that by itself does not adequately explain all of it.
Perhaps it’s got something to do with vulnerability. Researcher Brene Brown has written extensively on the topic after almost two decades of study in the field one thing that’s become quite clear is that an incredible amount of courage is required to overcome the sense of vulnerability that comes from everyday life. It’s so much more the case, though, for those who appear as public figures. For a woman, off-base suggestions that her weight, level of physical prowess, or attire, for example may be in any way sub-par are going to hit straight where it hurts most.
So what? So this: people who offer themselves for public office are subject to the most excruciatingly intimate degree of public scrutiny possible. Nothing—nothing at all—is off the table. One would think that public scrutiny should be limited to performance in the portion of the public arena that is work related. Performance in the area of drafting legislation, debating public policy, contributing to committee work and responding to emerging needs of constituents, sure—those are fair game. But it never ends there, does it? Everything gets mentioned, reported and commented on: family life, previous work and education and, yes, all those issues related to body image; the things that hurt the most.
One most then ask, “why would any level headed woman offer herself for public office given the widely-accepted toxic climate they must endure from the general public?” Why indeed.
As far as women are concerned such a long road lies ahead, does it not?