Gender equity is about more than numbers

Inner Activist faculty, Natasha Aruliah, joined the CBC at their Vancouver studios early March 8, 2016, International Women's Day.

It was an honour to be asked to speak a little on gender equity and feminism on the CBC today to highlight International Women’s Day. However, as is typical of media, time was limited and so I thought I would add a few comments to expand on what I said.

The main question put to me was, “do we still need feminism and policies that address gender balance in 2016?” Well the short answer is a resounding ‘yes’.

The main point I want to make is that while great advances have been made, we haven’t achieved it all. We still have pay inequity and low representation of women in decision-making and leadership roles like government. We still have gender violence and hyper-sexualisation of women’s bodies. And we still have undervaluing of women’s unpaid work as care-givers. It is crucial that leaders, decision-makers, and politicians understand the full complexity of women’s lives in order to lead and make decisions that benefit and support women. That means women have to be a proportion of those leaders, decision-makers and politicians.

The gains we have made are not for all women, but a select few, mainly based on race and class. While white, middle-class women have achieved a lot in the work place, Indigenous, racialised, immigrant, working class women, women with disabilities, and transgender women have not progressed as far. The work of understanding our multiple identities, how they intersect and the complexity is a crucial next step in gaining equality for all women.

Finally, the work of feminism and gender equity needs to be elevated to another level where we are addressing male dominated norms and terms of reference – such as the type of work that is valued, how success is defined, and challenging gendered role expectations and stereotypes. Feminism should not be about women gaining access to be token men, but women gaining respect, acceptance and value for being women on our own terms.

The use of policies and quotas can help move things in the right direction, mainly by creating the opportunity to have a critical mass of women. However, that is not enough. Great care needs to be taken to ensure those places are not just filled by white, middle-class women, but rather a wide diversity of women to reflect the range of women’s lives and lived experiences.

If no attention is paid to changing the culture of an organization and of society as a whole to support women, we will revert back to the ‘norm’ which is based on maleness and masculinity. With no attention to shifting the culture, women are likely to experience a number of microaggressions, comments, behaviours and actions that undermine, attack and impact them adversely.

This can create a toxic work environment that often results in women leaving the work place. Results like a revolving door of women coming and going because well-intentioned diversity policies often end once people are hired. These policies often do not address the environment and culture of the organization and how it might impact women in order to support and retain them.

On the show it was discussed that this work (feminism) needs to be taken on by everyone, men as well as women. This is an important evolution of feminism, not just in considering gender equity, but all forms of equity. The work on cultural change and the responsibility needs to be found within all groups, especially the dominant groups. 

In addressing all forms of oppression – those in the dominant, privileged group need to be engaged and part of dismantling oppressive systems. Particularly when a 33% critical mass and proportional representation of marginalized people such as transgendered people are not met within a group.

There is so much more I could say, but I will end with reclaiming feminism as a word that is not polarizing or negative, but one that we can all be proud to use to fight for gender rights, which are human rights. Being a feminist does not mean hating men. It means all people - men, women, trans - fighting for gender equity.

Listen to Natasha's first full interview on CBC radio here.

Listen to Natasha's follow-up CBC radio interview here, starting at minute 24.