Discussion: What changes can we make to our social, political and legal institutions to improve gender equity in Canada?

On September 20 last year, Emma Watson gave a widely acclaimed speech at the United Nations, launching the HeForShe campaign – one aimed at starting a broader conversation and building a broader coalition to promote global gender equity.

Gender equity is important, but can be difficult to talk about in public forums. Having broad conversations about gender equity is particularly important because allies are critical to progress. Active support from male allies is important to combatting sexualization, sexual harassment, sexual violence, disparities in economic and political power, and other issues facing women. Similarly, female allies, particularly within the gender equity movement, are needed to bring men’s issues, including high suicide rates, declining educational achievement, disparities in family and criminal law, and lack of social support for male victims of sexual violence, into mainstream consciousness. Allies within the male-female gender binary are important to addressing equity issues facing LGBTQ individuals and others with non-binary gender identities.

To kick off this type of broad discussion on The Tête-à-Tête in a Canadian context, we reached out to several Canadian experts on gender equity issues, from a diverse array of perspectives, of which three graciously agreed to participate. Each author contributed an article (here, here, and here) addressing the question, ‘What changes can we make to our social, political and legal institutions to improve gender equity in Canada?’ Before posting, the authors provided each other with detailed and constructive double-blind peer reviews, and then revised their own articles in response to the comments they received.

We want to hear from you too. What changes to social, political, and legal institutions do you think are most needed to improve gender equity in Canada? Please let us know in the comments, or pitch us an article or essay of your own. With your help, we hope to build understanding, trust, and common ground – the foundations of a coalition – and to inspire continued progress toward an important goal.


12 thoughts on “Discussion: What changes can we make to our social, political and legal institutions to improve gender equity in Canada?

  1. Thanks to everyone who contributed to starting this discussion. These articles give a very broad and very important overview of some of the issues in Canada (many of which are much broader than Canada) related to gender equity.

    I have a couple of questions related to specific issues that have been in the news lately that I would be very interested in hearing the authors’ (and your!) thoughts on:

    1. Missing and murdered aboriginal women – This is a human rights crisis that only seems to be getting worse, and is becoming a huge black eye for Canada. The Globe and Mail launched a series of articles today on this and related topics. There have been lots of calls for a national inquiry. Do you all agree that there should be one? If not, why not? If so, what do you think are the big questions that need answering? If the federal government doesn’t call one (which looks likely), what else can we do to address this issue? Is there a specific policy or action recommendation that we should be calling for? It strikes me that if a national inquiry isn’t going to happen, it would be great if there was some other tangible action we could rally around. The push for carbon taxes and same-sex marriage are recent examples of specific policy recommendations related to much larger issues (climate change and LGBTQ rights) that people have been able to rally around and make big waves recently. It would be great if we could still have something like that for missing and murdered aboriginal women if the national inquiry doesn’t happen.

    2. Balancing safety and civil rights on campus – There has been a lot of news coverage lately, in both Canada and the US, on sexual assault on campus. Regardless of what the exact numbers are, it seems clear that it is a big problem worth addressing, and a study just came out suggesting that many universities are deflating the numbers when they are not under federal audits (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/02/150202105321.htm). Yet some of the remedies that have been put in place on some campuses (at least in the US), have come under fire from legal experts (including much of the Harvard Law faculty) for violating the civil rights of accused to due process (e.g., see here for some examples: http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2014/12/college_rape_campus_sexual_assault_is_a_serious_problem_but_the_efforts.html). It seems that there are perverse incentives at the university admin level on both fronts here: they have an incentive to both underreport assaults and overzealously prosecute accused so they look safer to prospective students and donors. My question for you all is, what does a campus sexual assault policy that: a) makes victims feel safe coming forward, and b) protects rights of due process for those accused, look like? If you were advising a university administration on this issue, what would you recommend?

    3. Building on the momentum of anti-bullying campaigns – Anti-bullying campaigns on social media and elsewhere, combatting bullying that LGBTQ youth (and others) are facing, have been very powerful, popular, and from what I can tell they have had some success; but what else can be done to make LGBTQ youth in Canadian society feel safer and more comfortable being themselves at what is often a very confusing and tumultuous time in their lives to begin with?

    4. Men’s educational achievement – In Canada, the U.S., and many other countries, men and boys are falling further and further behind in elementary school, high school, and college. Are there changes we can make to our education systems that help boys succeed without affecting the success rates of women and girls?

    5. Baby penalties in the ivory tower – There is clear evidence that women are paying a big ‘baby penalty’ in academia (e.g. see: http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2013/06/female_academics_pay_a_heavy_baby_penalty.html). A big part of the problem seems to be that early academic careers (pre-tenure) typically involve 10-15 years of ‘up or out’ (PhD-postocs-junior faculty) that coincides with the ages (25-40) where people have children; but men with children aren’t being affected nearly as much (in fact, they seem to be doing better than their childless counterparts). As an academic, I have seen this way too often; and I suspect this is a problem in other ‘up-or-out’ professions (e.g., law, medicine). How can we make these career paths more friendly to women who have children, so we don’t lose so many talented people (not to mention discouraging talented people from reproducing)?

    Thanks again for being so generous with your time and expertise in having this discussion!


  2. I recently came across this forum and discussion and noticed that you had an interesting combination of perspectives here. Slate recently ran two articles this week on politics of consent and free speech in the context of college campuses that touched on topics covered in all of the pieces here, particularly Niya Bajaj’s piece ‘contact as crisis’ and Edward Sullivan’s piece ‘co-operation, not infighting’. They posed some questions on which I would love to hear the opinion of the panel.

    In the first http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/view_from_chicago/2015/02/university_speech_codes_students_are_children_who_must_be_protected.2.html, Eric Posner argues that campuses are right to restrict some forms of speech and sexual activity on campuses that may be legal in the outside adult world because university students are still children (their brains are still developing, particularly in areas on impulse control), and therefore need a learning environment that protects them to a certain extent from their own impulsiveness and from encountering certain topics that might be too troubling. In a related article, linked in the first, Amanda Hess talks about how colleges define and punish sexual misconduct in the context of drunken sex, noting that colleges do not all draw the line between consensual drunken hookups and sexual misconduct in different places, and that line is often consciously not drawn the same for women and men http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2015/02/drunk_sex_on_campus_universities_are_struggling_to_determine_when_intoxicated.html.

    These articles brought a few questions to my mind that I’d love to hear perspectives on from a panel like this:

    1. There seems to be a logic to structuring a campus environment as a safe learning environment for youth, who have not quite grown up yet, to learn the rules of healthy debate and healthy relationships. This environment would naturally contain more safeguards than the real world. However, frequently the disciplinary action seems to be very adult (e.g. expulsion, denying a college education). Amanda Hess suggests, for essentially this reason, that restorative justice may be a better response to a good number of these cases than harsh and permanent disciplinary action. The recent Dalhousie scandal has shown that many in the public and on campuses might not support this approach, at least for speech or actions as extreme as what occurred in the Dalhousie case. What do you on the panel think is the proper role (if any) of mediation and restorative justice in dealing with sexual misconduct or speech that is deemed hateful, offensive or threatening on campus? How do we balance the ideals of offering youth educational opportunities to learn the consequences of their actions with offering them a safe environment free of destructive behaviour? Does restorative justice have any proper place in society at large (i.e. off campus)?

    2. As Hess points out, the rules of what you can and can’t say and what you can and can’t do on campus seem to be increasingly different for women and men. The example of Hannah Rosin vs. Larry Summers in Edward Sullivan’s essay here on ‘co-operation, not infighting’ is a good illustration of this dichotomy in the context of offensive speech. Amanda Hess’s Slate piece discusses this double standard for sexual misconduct and outlines some of the arguments for and against it. My questions for the panel are: Is holding men to a higher standard reasonable/necessary given that the majority of predatory sexual acts are perpetrated by men in society at large? In other words, should the ‘good men’ accept this additional responsibility because it will help make campuses safer for young women who, past the age of puberty, are statistically more likely to be targets of sexual violence, and thus, by some measure, provide an overall more equal access to education for men and women with equal degrees of risk (albeit different risks for each gender)? What (if any) are the similarities and differences between this and the arguments for and against the extra scrutiny certain minority groups (e.g. Muslims) currently receive from police? Should the cases for and against these double standards be different for speech restrictions than they are for sexual misconduct?

    3. Finally, the previous question in the context of consent and maturity in the Slate articles seems to relate exactly to the following passage in ‘Crisis’: “Consent, and the ability to give it, should be a simple matter between equals. It rarely is, because in most societies, the female half of the population has been and is currently seen as lacking the self-control and maturity required set or control their own boundaries. This perceived lack of ability has evoked fear and controlling actions from the male half of society including the discounting or ignoring of the boundaries that women set for themselves and their attempts to control it.” While there is no question that consent policies and related discipline on campuses, probably more than anywhere else, have been crafted by well-meaning people with women’s best interests and perhaps even a feminist perspective in mind, it seems that holding men and women to different standards of consent/responsibility in sex and expression might both reflect and perpetuate the kind of sexist beliefs that Bajaj describes in the passage quoted above, even if this would be a case of benevolent and not hostile sexism. How do we best reconcile the ideal that “consent…should be a matter between equals” with the reality that sexual crimes are more often committed by men?

    -Jamie, Mississauga, ON

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great questions, Jamie, and thanks, Ian, for sharing the National Post link. Here are some other links that speak to some of the questions I posted earlier:

    1. The Globe’s series, ‘Rich Country, Poor Nations’:
    ‘Institute equality for indigenous women’ (Nahanni Fontaine; http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/nahanni-fontaine-institute-equality-for-indigenous-women/article22887139/)

    ‘Indigenous thought belongs in the classroom’ (Paul Martin; http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/indigenous-thought-belongs-in-the-classroom/article22839404/)

    ‘Native youth reclaim their future through technology’ (Gabrielle Fayant; http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/gabrielle-fayant-native-youth-claim-their-future-through-technology/article22856060/)

    ‘First Nations crisis is about land: We need a new settlement’ (Hayden King; http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/hayden-king-first-nations-crisis-is-about-land-we-need-a-new-settlement/article22887364/)

    2. See Jamie’s post above for some excellent ones.

    3. The It Gets Better Project (website here: http://www.itgetsbetter.org/pages/about-it-gets-better-project/) has lots of good suggestions for how to get involved.

    4. HuffPost article on a recent study measuring educational achievement gaps between boys and girls in over 74 countries (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/28/girls-academic-achievement-data_n_6566346.html).

    Another HuffPost article exploring possible reasons (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/matthew-lynch-edd/why-are-boys-falling-behi_b_6354164.html)

    5. There are some great discussions/resources on equity issues facing women in academia (which are much broader than the ‘baby penalty’) on the blog, Tenure, She Wrote. (https://tenureshewrote.wordpress.com).


  4. Thanks for the thoughtful questions, Jamie. While I don’t have responses to all of your questions, I do have some ideas:
    To your question “How do we best reconcile the ideal that “consent…should be a matter between equals” with the reality that sexual crimes are more often committed by men?” One way to address this, and certainly not the only way, is to create material (Hooking Up and Staying Hooked is creating useful material: http://www.hookingupandstayinghooked.com/) and space for conversation that is tailored to the situation men find themselves in. There is no lack of material for women about consent/negotiating relationships but I have yet to see anything that:
    1. provides men with strong enough reason to think critically and engage in consensual behavior with partners they consider equals – “Do it because it’s right” is weak reasoning at best. If that were enough people would eat healthily and not text while driving either. Maybe it’s a awareness campaign, or maybe it gets built into the sexual assault prevention policies, or it’s training for frosh leaders – but materials that are designed to address the realities that men face in a culture that objectifies and commoditizes women (so why shouldn’t they?) and encourages them think about and explore models of what a healthy, satisfying relationship looks like could be more useful than “No means No/Yes means Yes” campaigns.
    2. creates a safe space to engage in dialogue with other men, and with women about negotiating consent in relationships and what that can look like on an individual and societal basis. Tessa & Lia at We Give Consent (https://www.change.org/p/ontario-ministry-of-education-make-consent-a-topic-in-the-2015-ontario-health-curriculum) are working to bring the consent conversation to the elementary school level, and if successful it will have significant impact, but it won’t make much difference to the young men and women who are already in high school or beyond. Peer counselling/ambassadors and campus sexual education centers could be an interesting model through which to create space for these conversations.

    To the restorative justice questions:
    Restorative justice is an excellent concept and has worked in programs related to young offenders, and so could work, quite efficiently, on campus and possibly in broader society when it comes to sexual violence. That said, there are a few things that need to be very carefully considered before moving forward:
    – pressure to participate, for both parties involved: sometimes in cases of campus sexual assault the survivor presses charges because seeing/hearing/being in some level of physical proximity creates a sense of physical or other discomfort. Creating a sense of pressure to participate may exacerbate the situation – especially for a survivor who hasn’t fully resolved the crisis situation. Similarly, individuals accused of sexual violence may feel pressured to participate in a process that may cause distress or other adverse reactions.
    – perception that institutions are taking too “soft” an approach – A restorative justice approach can be quite helpful to those involved, assuming they participate of their own volition and the process is well mediated. However, it can result in the social perception that there aren’t “real” consequences for actions that result in significant harm if it is the only option for resolution of the situation.
    – feelings of remorse, repentance & forgiveness: given the nature of incident, one or both parties may have strong feelings (lack of remorse, or the feeling that there is no cause for it/lack of forgiveness or the feeling that there is no cause for it) that negate the purpose of the restorative justice process.

    Of interest: Koss, Wilgus & Williamson have a paper on campus sexual violence and restorative justice. You can find it here: http://tva.sagepub.com/content/15/3/242.abstract

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for your posts, everyone. And such provocative questions. I write rather slowly so I’ll take on one questions at a time.

    Regarding young adults being “children” and restorative justice…

    I must say, I don’t “buy” the currently popular brain science about adolescence. At least not as a simple one-way causal relationship (immature physiology leads to immature behaviour). My understanding is that immature physiology is at least due in part to the lack of development. We know that the brain and its pathways are always changing and building. The pathways that are used more often are strengthened and vice versa. So, that a 17-year old brain doesn’t seem to have fully developed “consequence and responsibility” regions could mean that “teens can’t and shouldn’t be asked to”. Or it could mean that “teens haven’t been asked to practice”. The plasticity and response-ability of the brain puts us in a nice loop. Our physiologies are both our limits and our potential. That teenagers attain moral reasoning skills (among many other skills) at significantly different ages across cultures has me convinced that the drunken, irresponsible freshman is at least in part a cultural creation. And we have the societal prerogative to disrupt it or yield to it. If it were up to me, I would support holding young people up to a high standard and then support them in achieving it.

    Interestingly, it is also for this reason that I support expanding restorative justice (RJ) practices in Western societies, for campus conflicts and indeed for all conflicts. Part of my confidence in RJ is precisely because it is not a “softer” option (if “soft” means less work, responsibility, ownership, time, and commitment from the perpetrator; less resolution and retribution to the survivor/complainant; and less involvement of wide community stakeholders). If there is such a thing as the evolution of human conflict resolution, the RJ is that next higher standard.

    RJ, by definition, requires willing, interested parties who engage in a process in good faith and towards a common goal of healing, resolution, and a plan to move forward. It does not pressure survivors to forgive, or make light of their pain. It also doesn’t exclude retributions and sanctions against the perpetrator. It just arrives at the outcome differently. In antagonistic models, one party is trying to get off with as little punishment as possible and the other trying to punish them more. In RJ, the perpetrator understands how their actions have impacted the survivor and desires atonement .

    From an emotional literacy lens, RJ brings everyone to the pain together so they can untangle it, while punitive/antagonistic models keep perpetrator and survivor separated in their pain (and often ignores the pain of the perpetrator of having hurt someone). It’s almost counterintuitive in our current social climate that we ought to show our pain to the person who has hurt us. But indeed it is the only and best way to actually resolve pain. Our “justice” system may do harm to the person who has harmed us (s/he hurt you so we hurt him/her for you – be it through sanctions or fines or punishments), but these harms actually do nothing for our wounds. They just assure us that we are not the only ones bleeding.

    So, do I support RJ in cases of campus sexual assault where all parties are willing and in good faith? Absolutely. I want it done right and by highly skilled mediators and facilitators. I want it as part of a cultural shift – away from blame and self-interest and towards responsibility and taking care of each other. We know that when we teach empathy to kids (and believe that it is part of their human nature), they pick it up right away and their microcosmic societies immediately follow. So I want this cultural shift to begin with the youngest of our lot, not only when their brains become “ready” for it. They’ve always been ready for it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I agree with Matt, that is a great argument for RJ, Karen. One place where I agree with what Niya is saying is that before the meditative process in RJ can take place, a proper investigation needs to take place to 1) separate the Steubenville type cases from the Drew Sterrett type cases (and everything in between), which clearly demand different remedies and 2) take an emotional assessment of both parties to see when they should face each other if at all. I also think that campus mediators, no matter how well trained should never replace a criminal process. If there is enough evidence that the perpetrator assaulted the victim by the criminal standard, then I think the campus needs to refer the case to the police and halt their process. If we take as a given that those cases are not included in the mediation discussion then I think it is hard to argue against it. The other thing I like about the non-adversarial framework of RJ is that, by not being all-or-nothing, it doesn’t pressure people to be either perfect victims or perfect wrongly accused and present the other person as back-alley rapist or vengeful liar. Taking these pressures off I think will make it easier to understand what really happened and what is the best remedy, particularly for those in between cases or ‘mutual assault’ cases like the mutual blackout case that was in both Yoffe and Hess’ pieces in Slate, where it is not clear that a unilateral picture of victim and perp really fits the case. Again if we take as a given that campuses should only be arbitrating cases where there is no clear and convincing evidence of criminal behavior, then RJ seems to make a ton of sense. In cases where there is criminal behavior, it seems like mandatory counseling or treatment for the convict after finishing their sentence as a condition for readmittance to school could be another way to get education and empathy into the process without harming the victim. In general I think that criminal proceedings should be left for the criminal justice system and education should be saved for colleges: RJ is education in empathy and compassion, perfect fit for colleges. As a related point, could the criminal justice system handle assault cases better? Almost certainly, but we need to focus our efforts on improving that system and the training of its practitioners instead of executing a separate vigilante court system of even more poorly trained people that by most accounts fails everyone right now. There are lots of good proposals that came out post Gomeshi, like the Nordic model of separate counsel for the crown and victim, that we should consider as a start.


  7. On the topic of Matt’s question 3 and several of the interesting issues brought up in Karen’s piece about those who fall outside the binary, there have been a number of interesting articles coming out recently covering trans issues both in Canada and the US. For example, Toronto’s CAMH has recently decided to review its child gender identity services http://news.nationalpost.com/2015/02/21/as-trans-issues-become-mainstream-question-of-how-to-address-variant-gender-expression-comes-to-forefront/. This article describes some of the challenges in determining an approach to treat the needs of these kids, in particular the balance between the risks associated with not accepting a child for who they say they are and having the effect of encouraging someone whose identity may not be fully formed or solidified to go through gender reassignment surgery later in life, which carries many risks to physical and mental health as well. In some ways, this dilemma intersects with the issue Jamie, Niya and Karen discussed in the context of college campuses: balancing encouragement of youth to exercise their informed consent (and thus take responsibility for the consequences in some respect) with the perceived need to take away some of their agency for their own good (e.g. to protect them from harmful experiences, decisions, etc.). I am generally inclined to agree with Karen in the context of college students: that they should be trained to be adults by being treated like adults and held to high standards (for example, just as our doctors in training should have to learn to deal with blood and traumatic injuries, lawyers in training should have to learn to objectively discuss even the most upsetting crimes). However with children as young as 6, I am less sure.


  8. As we talk about ways to move towards more gender equity, Interval House has released a new study about perception and victim blaming. You can find it here: http://www.intervalhouse.ca/news/general-news/are-ontarians-apathetic-domestic-violence. The statistics on gender perception & victim blaming aren’t a surprise. What is surprising and concerning is that only slightly more than half (58.3%) of Ontarians would consider intervening if someone told their that they were being abused by a spouse or partner. Another cause for concern was the fact that a third (33.5%) of Ontarians would not know what to do if they suspected abuse. I’m curious to see the impact that Bystander action campaigns and the new plan that the Premier of Ontario will have on these numbers.


  9. Thanks for this link Niya. Is there a link to the full study results somewhere? It would be informative to see these statistics in the context of exactly how the questions were worded (particularly the victim-blaming and whether or not one would intervene), because that has a huge impact on how alarming these statistics are and where exactly awareness campaigns should be directed. On the third question, that 33.5% of Ontarians wouldn’t know what to do, I’m actually surprised that number isn’t higher. I hope bystander awareness campaigns include information about the available local services and about what the legal processes and obligations are. The laws surrounding domestic violence are definitely an area where public education could be much better.


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