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International Women’s Day 2016

March 8, 2016

“Sometimes equality means treating people the same, despite their differences, and sometimes it means treating them as equals by accommodating their differences” (p. 3).

Equality in Employment: A Royal Commission Report, 1984

In her 1984 Royal Commission Report, Equality in Employment, then Judge, and now Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, the Honourable Rosalie Abella, recognized that equality was an elusive goal for many women. She also acknowledged historical factors, tradition, and the biological reality that only women give birth contributes to this inequity. Changing this, she argued, requires fair contracts, equal pay, education, training, and adequate childcare.

Challenging and changing gender inequality is a goal of International Women’s Day 2016. With the theme of Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality,” the aim is to promote laws, education, programs, and action plans that enable women and girls to achieve their potential.

Committing to this work, and encouraging equality is sometimes a lifelong commitment. On March 2, Justice Abella spoke to law students at the University of Saskatchewan, reflecting on her own career and the demands of working in the justice system. She spoke about the need for better access to justice for all people and the ongoing need for equity.

In many respects, Canadian society has made significant improvement in the area of equity because of the work of Justice Abella. Federal equity legislation, and provincial programs like the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commissions employment and education equity partnerships, ask that women, as well as Aboriginal people, visible minorities, and people with disabilities, be fairly and equitably included in our evolving workforce.

The SHRC’s equity programs, for example, use the best available population data from Statistics Canada to give employers and educators the best information possible to shape and grow their organizations. This data, like the Canadian population as a whole, is changing. For example, Saskatchewan experienced notable in-migration over the last several years and this is likely to influence workforce representativeness.

Still, many of the issues facing women in the workforce do not change. Yesterday, the Criminal Lawyers’ Association released a study into the retention of women in private practice criminal law. That study revealed that maternal leave, childcare, pay, and attitudes result in more women than men leaving the field of criminal law.

The workplace challenges identified in this study, and identified decades ago in the 1984 Royal Commission Report, remain. The wage gap in Canada, for example, indicates that women, working full time, earn 73.5 cents for every dollar that a man makes. Globally the United Nations Human Development Index ranks Canada as 9th in the world. However, gender inequality creates a loss in human development, and Canada ranks 25th in the world, based on reproductive health, empowerment, and economic activity.

As the United Nations advances 2030 goals for gender equality, it is worth considering the insight offered in Justice Abella’s pioneering 1984 report:

“Human rights commissions must have the resources they need to fulfill their mandate; women must be encouraged by all political parties to play an equal and effective role both as candidates and as policy advisers; the media must become more self-conscious about how they portray issues they consider “female”; businesses must be made to examine their practices to identify and eliminate barriers facing women; and the public must be taught to stop thinking in terms of how a particular gender ought to behave and to start thinking in terms of equal options. Until all these initiatives are undertaken, women and men will be less than they could otherwise be” (p. 32).

David M. Arnot, Chief Commissioner
Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission