In politics, our interpretation of what constitutes an act of sexism has shrivelled to a superficial social media-driven cherry-picking that barely skims the surface. We ignore the real prejudice and discrimination against women that infects our potential policy-making. This has to change.
Current conversations about sexism tend to be far more trivial than structural. We have become fixated on raw ratios and distracted by physical appearances and sexual orientation – sexism's super obvious surface. This frustratingly narrow focus has drawn attention from the more important and thorny contemporary women's issues: a persistent wage gap, unenforceable board quotas, choice in reproductive health, provision of affordable child care, and parental-leave benefits. The absence of a national feminist organization to spearhead this kind of comprehensive evaluation of public policy leads to the degradation of our politics. Instead of frank debate during a writ, we get political operatives and members of the media skimming careless Facebook posts and offensive tweets for frivolous sexist sound bites. This is as counterproductive as it is silly. At the end of the day it accomplishes nothing for Canadian women.
Take Ontario's recent June election. It was punctuated early with a few accusations of "sexism" from Progressive Conservatives after Liberal candidates Jack Uppal and David Mossey were thoughtless; the former re-posting a list of the "differences between men and women" and the latter liking big butts (and not lying about it!) – on his Facebook page. However, their degrading lapses seemed to cancel out Hammurabi-style when we were reminded that PC Wayne Wettlaufer had earlier tweeted something similarly slanderous about the so-called fairer sex. So many men have said chauvinistic things about women on social media that screencaps lose their utility as an electoral weapon each election cycle. As a result, sexism rooted in public policy options cease to be an issue of public interest.
This limited definition of what sexism is speaks volumes about the lack of a satisfying feminist lens for evaluating policy proposals. If we had really wanted to talk about The S Word (sexism) during the recent provincial election, for example, we should have used it to critique the parties' platforms and consider how their promises would affect women's economic participation and outcomes. Instead of focusing on trivial digital transgressions, Ontarians might have instead gossiped about, say, the deeply anti-women nature of the Conservatives' platform.
From a policy perspective, not investing in childcare improvements to encourage maternal labour force participation, support families, and facilitate early learning was – quite simply – sexist. As was opposing a minimum-wage increase, which will benefit women clustered in part-time work. Similarly unfair to women was the opposition of cost-sharing of IVF and promise to block wage increases for child care and personal support workers; both of whom are disproportionately female. Lastly, the hallmark of the "Million Jobs Plan" – a focus on the manufacturing and skilled trades sectors – was fundamentally sexist as those sectors are disproportionately composed of men.
Part of the reason substantive public policy proposals aren't always met with the scrutiny they deserve is that Canada lacks an institution to do the work and modern feminism is fractal. Nonetheless, we – feminists and otherwise – need to be more rigorous and less lazy. We can't just keep carefully counting the number of women on the ballot and in our legislatures and tell ourselves that modest growth represents progress for women in politics or that we as a society have made great gains when we don't make fun of someone's scrunchie. Yes, it is important that more women run for public office and it is exhilarating when they win. But a few months ago, in our excitement over catching the digital transgressions of candidates for provincial office we totally forgot to talk about the female-and-family-friendliness of party platforms from a critical feminist perspective during a historical provincial election. Indeed, we pointed fingers and briefly talked about bums.
All I'm asking for in the 2015 federal election are platforms that recognize and address women's unique socioeconomic challenges and for people to recognize it when they don't. Perhaps we will find some time during this new permanent campaign to grant real "sexism" the scrutiny it deserves and pump up the conversation as if it has been diligently doing squats. Canada could use a little more girl power, anyways.