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Former governor general Adrienne Clarkson. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Former governor general Adrienne Clarkson. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

WORK IN PROGRESS

Canadian women on sexism and the struggle for gender parity Add to ...

This story is part of Work in Progress, The Globe's look at the global struggle for gender parity.

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Adrienne Clarkson, 77, co-founder and co-chair of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship and 26th Governor-General of Canada, Toronto.

What’s the biggest misunderstanding about what it’s like to be a woman right now?

It’s that women believe that, because they have more than half of the places in medical schools and half the places in law schools, they somehow have levers of power. Until women become deans of medical faculties and law schools, heads of departments, and senior partners in law firms, they do not hold the levers of power. They are going into a man’s world in which all the rules have been made for men, for their comfort, and usually for the fact that they have wives who are willing to work with their 200-hour work weeks. It is only recently that Ontario has done away with evening sessions for its legislature, and I’m waiting for Parliament to do the same.

Politics has always been a man’s club. When Judy LaMarsh was elected as a parliamentarian, she could not find a women’s washroom anywhere near the House of Commons. That women are now half the federal cabinet is a wonderful step forward. I never thought I would see the day.

What advice would you give someone 10 years younger about sex, work and the expectations of others?

Quite frankly, you must always work as hard as you can because no one is ever going to give you anything . A woman should never believe in other people’s expectations of her, but only in the expectations that she has created for herself and what she wishes to do with her own life.

It is a good thing early on in life to listen to people you admire and whose ideas seem to have depth and breadth and who are decent human beings. Being a decent human being is more important than intellectual capabilities. Also, I think it is important for women to always nourish their spiritual side, because no amount of forward-looking feminism is going to change their biology. Women have the capability of having children and that ability to give life means that nurturing the spiritual is very important. As for sex, I would never dream of giving advice to anybody. It’s difficult enough to figure out for yourself.

What’s the last sexist experience you had?

The Globe and Mail’s article this week about the death of my ex-husband mentioned the custody arrangements of our divorce 42 years ago. Nobody mentions the custody arrangements of a man’s divorce.

What’s the next frontier?

We have to make sure that institutions become more capable of dealing with women who wish to have power so that they can also have children and be able to bring them up properly. Adequate child care in Canada is a pressing thing and something that many of us have been fighting for for over 40 years. People in Canada don’t realize that in all of Europe there is adequate daycare. This makes it possible for women to at least begin to think that they are being dealt a fair hand. Also, it means that children get adequate education right from the beginning in a public situation which cannot help but make for a healthier society. I believe that daycare and the restructuring of organizations so that they make room for women’s lives will lead to a burst of creativity which uses the principle of the feminine in the best way possible.

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Sophia Banks, 36, chef, Montreal

What’s the biggest misunderstanding about what it’s like to be a woman right now?

Viewing this through a trans feminist lens, I would say it’s possibly how society defines women. As a trans woman, I still struggle most days just to be seen as a woman. Too often I feel erased by feminists who don’t share this struggle. As women, we must be mindful of defining ourselves under a cisnormative patriarchal gaze.

What advice would you give to someone 10 years younger?

I am always wary of giving advice. I feel jaded. I suppose what I would say to younger women is to not base your worth on being sexually desirable. That you should pursue any career you want, and even if your career path is riddled with misogyny, you can be a woman kicking down doors for others. My advice to my younger self would be to live with more honesty. I have had to define for myself what being a woman is, and in some ways I am thankful.

What’s the last sexist experience you had?

I was let go from a supervisor role in early January. The owner told me that I would probably be more suited to working in a drag club with people like me. Essentially she equated me, as a trans woman, with a man in drag, while telling me I was not a good fit for her company.

What’s the next frontier?

Feminism, I hope, can move beyond this idea that biology is gender, that only two genders exist. My trans liberation is tied to the liberation of feminism. To be liberated from what we are told we must and must not be because of the bodies we are born with. If feminism is to counter the patriarchy, then it needs to be here for all oppressed genders.

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Farrah Khan, 36, sexual-violence support and education co-ordinator, Ryerson University

What’s the biggest misunderstanding about what it’s like to be a woman right now?

That the fight for gender equity is over. The assumption that everyone is now equal and safe.

What advice would you give someone 10 years younger ?

That the expectation to be “nice” or not rock the boat in our families, workplaces or friend groups by naming the abusers in our midst is bunk. We have the right to be safe; if that makes people uncomfortable, then they are the problem, not you.

As a survivor of sexual violence, I wish someone had told me it wasn’t my fault. Too often we can internalize messages or minimize the violence for our own safety. We convince ourselves that it wasn’t “so bad” or was somehow our fault.

Trust yourself. Know that, no matter what you wore, who you were with, if you’d been dating for five days or five years, how you responded before, during or after the attack – you are not deserving of violence. No one is.

What’s the last sexist experience you had?

I was being interviewed about the Jian Ghomeshi trial and a man walking by and yelled “Fuck her right in the pussy.” Let’s be clear what that comment means – it’s a call for rape. That moment and so many others are a clear reminder to me that we have so far to go.

What’s the next frontier ?

None of us are safe until we all are. We have to build better alliances between movements recognizing that women are not a monolithic group. For me, right now, that means listening to movements like Black Lives Matter, indigenous women and two-spirited communities, trans women and Muslim women. I am listening and responding to their calls for action, not saving.

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Tanya Tagaq, 40, singer

What’s the biggest misunderstanding about what it’s like to be a woman right now?

That we do not need feminism.

What advice would you give someone 10 years younger about sex, work and handling the expectations of others?

Sexually, enjoy yourself, respect yourself. Do what and whom you want to, not what and whom you feel you have to.

When working, the more you depend on yourself, the more freedom you have.

As for others, there is a neverending waterfall of expectations crashing down on your head; you can either wash with it or let it drown you.

What’s the last sexist experience you had?

This morning, when I had to battle guilty feelings stemming from allowing myself to sleep in while my partner got our child ready for daycare. It’s so ingrained in me to help out that it’s difficult to get a day’s rest. I have to remind myself that it’s okay for the term “working dad” to have the same implications as the term “working mom.”

What’s the next frontier?

Violence, sexual and otherwise. We are in the dark ages, entrenched in a judicial system that allows abusers to reign over our bodies with impunity.

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Sandy Cimoroni, 50, chief operating officer, TD Wealth, and chair, Women Investor Program, Toronto

What’s the biggest misunderstanding about what it’s like to be a woman right now?

There is a belief that women still struggle trying to have it all. I think that you can have it all – just maybe not all at the same time. If you can shift your priorities as life ebbs and flows, then you can find the right balance of career, family and legacy aspirations. For example, through some recent work TD has done with Rotman School of Management, studying more than 400 women across the country, 10 key themes emerged on how women can achieve success. Women bring different perspectives to what professional advancement means – there isn’t a one-size-fits-all point of view.

What advice would you give someone 10 years younger about sex, work and handling the expectations of others?

Say what you want in your career. The conversations I have with young women and men tend to differ. For example, young men come to me saying: Here’s my plan; what do you think? Whereas young women come to me asking: What do you think I should do? You have to know what makes you happy, learn what you’re good at and then take initiative to get you where you want to be. I’ve taken jobs that I thought would get me somewhere, but they didn’t necessarily make me happy. If you don’t like what you are doing, chances are you won’t be successful.

When it comes to handling other people’s expectations, be accountable to yourself first. Rethink guilt in your life; many times it’s related to other people’s expectations of what you should or should not be doing. Focus on the big picture and the positive choices you are making in your life.

What’s the last sexist experience you had?

I know sexism still exists and we have a lot of work ahead of us, but honestly it’s not something I perceive in my day-to-day life. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. I am fortunate to work for an organization that recognizes the importance of diversity and women in leadership, and is working hard to remove barriers in its culture. On a personal note, having been raised by hard-working Italian immigrant parents, both of whom shared the responsibility of raising a busy family, I had strong male and female role models who helped to shape and build my confidence, and instilled a strong work ethic.

What’s the next frontier?

We will know we have reached our goal when we no longer have programs, or talk about diversity or women in leadership, but rather it’s become an inherent part of the culture. Greater accountability at the leadership level (in any organization) is key when it comes to making an impact. Measuring success is not about quotas but about making long-term, meaningful progress.

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Michie Mee a.k.a. Michie Bahdgyal Mee, a.k.a. Michelle McCullock, 30-/40-something, loving life, married to music, actor, songwriter, emcee, visionary, philanthropist on a budget

What’s the biggest misunderstanding about what it’s like to be a woman right now?

That we’re equal. That we can’t get the job done together because we can’t work together. Consistently doing more is not enough any more; things are changing but not fast enough. You already know the equal-pay speech, so we layer work with fun, loads of personality, sometimes food, swag, delivery and sense a humour, while getting the job done. We are the CEOs of LOVE+.

Looking at the glass ceiling but looking past it, we lasted … “We are women, hear us roar!”

Stay tuned – we’re everywhere.

What advice would you give someone 10 years younger about a) sex, b) work and c) handling the expectations of others?

a) Have fun when having it. Use protection, keep it clean; don’t film, take pictures and post. You don’t know what the future holds. By all means water your garden … just keep in mind, all boys wanna do is get in your pants. It’s not all “love.” Waiting is better; easier said than done … ppfftt – do you!

b) Don’t ever give up. Find your passion and use it; there’s no one like you. Be smart, ask questions.

Follow through. If interested in music or entertainment, “artist development” is a must. Take your time .

“Save your money; it will save you” – as heard on Oprah.

c) Be true to yourself. Why do they expect so much from you? You don’t have to answer everyone’s questions. Everyone has a choice. Everyone is not your friend.

What’s the last sexist experience you had?

You too fass *Jamaican accent lolol … Besides, every day is sexy! I have a great imagination.

What’s the next frontier?

Spreading love, not war.

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Judy Illes, 55, UBC professor of neurology, wife, mother, owner of two great big dogs, Vancouver

What’s the biggest misunderstanding about what it’s like to be a woman right now?

All the problems of inequity have been resolved, so we can stop trying to achieve it.

What advice would you give someone 10 years younger?

The shortest distance between two points when you are a woman is not a straight line. There are never just two points (job, partner, family, the plumber, laundry, groceries and more) and definitely not just one line.

What’s the last sexist experience you had?

Idea rudely dismissed in a large professional forum; when senior male chimed in to say it was actually a good idea, it instantly became one.

What’s the next frontier?

Sustainability to the progress we have made, so that inclusiveness and diversity are normal and natural, and we don’t keep having to revisit the topic, metrics and our frustrations, time and again.

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Zahra Ebrahim, 32, co-chief executive officer of design-and-innovation firm Doblin (Canada)

What’s the biggest misunderstanding about what it’s like to be a woman right now?

The most difficult part is understanding which conversations on diversity and inclusion are actually advancing women, and which ones are fixing our position as something other than completely equal. I find that talking about being a woman in Canada can be limiting. My gender role is only one of the components of my identity I explore as I navigate my personal and professional life – equally important is my sense of agency in the world, my cultural identity, my beliefs and values, and my accountability in generating social impact. Being a woman is an influencing factor, but for the most part, I see these components of my identity as mostly gender-agnostic. I’ve had the unique experience of being an entrepreneur, an academic, and now leading Canada’s largest and fastest-growing innovation firms . Across all of these experiences I believe that it was my conviction to bring humanity to spaces of power, to bring empathy, to surface uncomfortable conversations – more because of agency, and less because of my gender.

What advice would you give someone 10 years younger ?

I’d advise anyone younger than myself to lead with inquiry in conversations. It’s an opportunity to neutralize power and gender dynamics by shifting the conversation to be more exploratory and co-creative. My career has found me in rooms and at tables where I am by far the least experienced, but most often the most willing, to not posture as “the smartest person in the room” – and it’s that disposition that enables me to explore rather than state. I think too many folks have calibrated to a way of being in “professional” environments that’s about bringing only one dimension of yourself in. What’s needed to collaboratively solve wicked problems is for individuals to show up with their full identity, their full spectrum of experience – even if it’s messy. The problems we are trying to solve are messy and complex. Having sanitized versions of ourselves sitting at decision-making tables doesn’t advance the conversation.

What’s the next frontier?

We need to bring more human-centred, empathy-driven approaches to problem-solving in Canada. Pick your problem, pick your scale, pick your sector, and there is likely a guardian standing in front of that system stating how it is and how it’s going to be. Rather than fighting these guardians, women naturally bring the necessary empathy and humanity to these systems by walking alongside those holding the problem, to create solutions together. We need to remind women that this is the key to solving key challenges in this country, and we need to model how we walk beside those fearful of change, rather than rallying against them.

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Anne Thériault, 33, freelance writer/professional feminist, Toronto

What’s the biggest misunderstanding about what it’s like to be a woman right now?

I think a lot of men don’t understand how grindingly ordinary and relentless misogyny is. They think that women already have equality – after all, we can work outside the home and wear pants and use birth control – and don’t understand what all the fuss is about. They think that, if they make a sexist joke or use a gendered slur, then everyone must understand they don’t really mean it because they’re not that kind of guy. But the truth is that women experience misogyny daily, and it affects nearly every aspect of our lives. I would love for our culture to start believing the women who speak up, rather than dismissing them as emotional or oversensitive.

What advice would you give someone 10 years younger about sex, work and handling the expectations of others?

With sex, only do things that make you feel good.

Whatever work you’re doing now probably isn’t going to be what you do forever. I know if you’re stuck in a dead-end job, it’s hard to imagine things ever getting better, but I promise you they almost certainly will.

Finally, when it comes to handling other people’s expectations, be clear and firm about your boundaries. Ask people to be upfront about what they expect, then offer them an honest answer about whether you can fulfill those expectations. Boundaries and honesty aren’t easy, but they’re a heck of a lot better than the alternative.

What’s the last sexist experience you had?

A stranger in a yoga class made a comment about how he likes to set up his mat at the back of the room so that he can stare at all the girls’ bums. I’m sure he thought he was being funny, but the reality is that he made every woman in the room uncomfortable.

What’s the next frontier?

Social-media platforms need to step up and start taking harassment seriously. What kind of world do we live in where pictures of women breastfeeding are routinely flagged and removed because they’re offensive, but jokes about sexual assault don’t violate community standards?

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Camilla Gibb, 48, writer, Toronto

What’s the biggest misunderstanding about what it’s like to be a woman right now?

Just because Hillary stands a chance‎, it doesn’t mean we are any closer to equality. Every single move she has made – from standing by her man, to assuming leadership post midlife (read: post sexual currency), has been dictated and determined by her gender.

What advice would you give someone 10 years younger?

If you have ambition for your career, freeze your eggs.‎ The window for both career achievement and motherhood is much narrower than you want to believe.

What’s the next frontier we need to make progress on?

Universal education for girls.

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Buffy Sainte-Marie, 75, award-winning singer-songwriter, activist, educator and visual artist

What’s the biggest misunderstanding about what it’s like to be a woman right now?

I think there’s still an almost global lack of understanding of the value of feminine wisdom about just about everything – banking, politics, philosophy, philanthropy. I’ve spent time in Iceland and, when the male bankers “greed-ed” their economy to death, the bank being run by women was the only one to survive, because of feminine alternative thinking.

“We have five core feminine values,” says Icelandic businesswoman Halla Tomasdottir. “First, risk awareness: Don’t invest in things we don’t understand. Second, profit with principles: Economic profit has to be balanced by a positive social and environmental impact. Third, emotional capital, including an emotional due diligence in checking up on the people involved in the company and determining whether the corporate culture is an asset or a liability.

Fourth, straight talking: The feminine Icelandic bankers believe the language of finance should be accessible, and not part of the alienating nature of banking culture. Fifth, independence: We would like to see women increasingly financially independent, because that brings the greatest freedom to be who you want to be, as well as unbiased advice.”

What advice would you give someone 10 years younger?

We need to understand that until now the business model of the male hierarchy has largely been fraud; that many things we take for granted as natural and inevitable in men (like rape, the rule of kings, genocidal war, ethnic cleansing, the oppression of women) are not “human nature” – they are specific cultural aberrations developed in certain parts of the world but not others. Don’t go for it. Abandon rankism of all kinds, particularly in yourself, and get proactive about the female brain: It’s a treasure. (Actually, I would consider somebody 10 years younger probably smarter than me about some things, so it’d be a two-way conversation.)

What’s the next frontier?

We need to understand that racketeers are nothing new and, when allowed, they cannibalize anything that brings power and money – it’s a low, temporary vibe but it’s not human nature, and we can do better. Expect them wherever there are coins, and try to come up with better alternatives to the King or Queen Midas approach: It’s self-destructive.

The big male-dominated rackets we see today need to ripen into something more human, more inclusive, more feminine. We need to graduate to 360-degree thinking, beyond the linear hierarchy that just wants to do the old male-corruption model more and better.

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Tara Cullis, 67, President and Co-Founder of David Suzuki Foundation, Vancouver.

What’s the biggest misunderstanding about what it’s like to be a woman right now?

That we’ve made it.  

What piece of advice would you give to someone 10 years younger than you about (a) sex; (b) work; (c) handling other people’s expectations?

My answer hits a common theme: explore what you enjoy doing, what gives you that special thrill. Then, follow your excitement. And then -- never give up.

What’s the last sexist experience you had?

Hilary Clinton is one of the most experienced and qualified persons ever to run for President.  It makes me sad when people don’t feel that a woman President is an important milestone, precedent, and goal.

What’s the next frontier we need to make progress on?

Two closely related fronts.

1. Every human is a different combination of male and female characteristics.  I believe our current situation is out of balance and needs far more of the female traits.  A current and pressing example: environmental work and care for the earth and climate constitute global housekeeping.  We all need to use traditional women’s experience, standards, and approaches if we are to clean up the planet.  Using the traditional masculine habits that created the problems in the first place doesn’t work.

2. On the other hand, women have far more to offer, of course, than traditionally female qualities.  We therefore absolutely need universal daycare and universal eldercare to free women up to explore their scientific and other left brain dimensions. Women are still the unpaid (and often involuntary) caregivers, while many men are well-suited to the job; many women will never be free to contribute their other skills to society until daycare and eldercare programs are in place.  That’s quite a loss.

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Jennifer Hollett, 40, digital strategist, federal NDP candidate, Toronto

What’s the biggest misunderstanding about what it’s like to be a woman right now?

As a society we are still struggling to understand and recognize that gender is a social construct, and that our own actions and assumptions create and reinforce what it means to be a woman.

What piece of advice would you give someone 10 years younger than you about a) sex; b) work; c) handling other people’s expectations?

a) Sex: You know what’s best for you.

b) Work: Work hard, people notice. Build relationships.

c) Expectations: Free yourself. Don’t worry about others’ expectations, they may be smaller or simply different than your own dreams.

What’s the last sexist experience you had?

Step on Twitter.

What’s the next frontier we need to make progress on?

In Canada we need to make progress on violence against women. Internationally, universal education is key. In far too many places, girls are not receiving an education because they are girls.

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