A palpable energy during celebration of women

This past week, as women across Canada and around the world celebrated International Women’s Day, something felt different.

There was a palpable energy, a feeling that as we honour civil rights leader Viola Desmond as the first Canadian woman to grace our currency, we are entering a game-changing chapter in the story of the advancement of Canadian women.

In Ontario, Premier Kathleen Wynne has continued to make unflinching progress in support of the success of women. This week, the province announced the introduction of legislation aimed at closing the pay gap that continues to persist between women and men carrying out the same work — a gap that is even wider for women of colour.

The measures include requiring that job postings publicly advertise salary rates or ranges — removing the practice of asking job candidates about past compensation — and requiring larger employers to track and report compensation gaps based on gender.

This month the Wynne government also announced unprecedented investments in improving sexual violence prevention strategies including a much-needed 35 per cent increase in base funding to sexual assault centres.

The federal Liberals earmarked significant investments in the 2018 budget focused on supporting women entrepreneurs, heard the call for attention to a nationally standardized approach to addressing gender-based violence on college and university campuses, and made a commitment to introducing pay equity legislation beginning with federally regulated sectors.

This is the kind of action that comes only when there is a critical mass of women who refuse to accept the status quo at the cabinet table. This work is strengthened when more fearless young women bring their talents to the political sphere.

For the first time in Canadian history, the government house leaders of all three major parties federally are women. As I write this, the Ontario PC party is in the process of selecting their leader, a decision that could result in three women leading their parties into the province’s election this spring.

Equal Voice honoured Lisa MacLeod, MPP for the riding of Nepean-Carleton, with the EVE award this past Thursday. MacLeod accepted the award by delivering a fiery speech recalling her experiences championing changes necessary to making Queen’s Park more welcoming for parents of young children, and especially mothers.

“As we become more accepting of mothers as MPPs, of young millennial women as political leaders, and of politicians who have confronted mental illness, we will be stronger in our political institutions and stronger as Canadians,” she said.

It shouldn’t require pregnant politicians or young mothers to forcibly change each municipality or provincial legislature one at a time. I look forward to proactive transformations toward parental leave, breastfeeding accommodations, proxy voting, and child care options for women in politics at all levels.

These are very real barriers that prevent young women who are looking to grow their families from bringing their talents to politics.

As difficult and uncomfortable as it is, it is also imperative that we continue to champion and support those actively working to create safer spaces for women in politics.

In an interview with Julia Lipscombe this week for The Kit, former prime minister Kim Campbell commented on the momentum of the #MeToo movement in politics. “I’m glad to see it happening … For much of human history there has been a condition where women’s bodies were the prizes for men who had power, or having power meant that you got access to women’s bodies.”

I’ll never forget the powerful message shared by Arezoo Najibzadeh of the Young Women’s Leadership Network when she left her seat empty last year at the Equal Voice Daughter’s of the Vote event. As 337 young women took their seats in the House of Commons, her empty chair served as a reminder that we have a lot of work ahead to support the young women silenced by sexual harassment and assault in Canadian politics.

I hope we can collectively continue to boldly dismantle the barriers keeping women out of political spheres and limiting their advancement, because the results have shown that having more women and women from diverse backgrounds in positions of leadership is better for all Canadians.

Tiffany Gooch is a Liberal strategist at public affairs firms Enterprise and Ensight and an advocate for increased cultural and gender diversity in Canadian politics.

(Published in The Toronto Star on Sunday, March 11)