St. John’s 3rd best city in Canada to be a woman: report

Well, sort of.

According to a new report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), St. John’s is the third best city in Canada to be a woman, based on the inequality gap between women and men.

The report, “The Best And Worst Place to be a Woman in Canada“, ranks Canada’s 20 biggest cities according to the degree of gender inequality among its male and female population, specifically in the areas of economic security, leadership, health and well-being, personal security and education.

Authored by senior CCPA researcher and director of the organization’s initiative on gender equality and public policy, Kate McInturff, the report ranks St. John’s third overall but places it at the top of the list for “security”. The capital city also ranked high for “health” (2nd) and “education” (3rd), but placed low in the categories of “economy” (16th) and “leadership” (19th).

What does this mean?

The report specifically examines gender inequity, one of many variables in determining the overall inequality among people of a particular place. But it’s a big one, McInturff points out. The report “provides a picture of where gender makes the greatest difference in the lives of Canadians and where it makes the least difference,” she writes. “Understanding where our greatest gender gaps are to be found is the first step to closing those gaps, in order to ensure that no one in Canada is denied the opportunity to thrive simply because they are born female.”

Each of Canada’s 20 biggest municipalities is ranked “based on a comparison of how men and women are faring in five different areas: economic security, leadership, health and well-being, personal security, and education. In each area several different things are measured.”

Economic security: According to the report a greater percentage of women and men in St. John’s are employed than other cities in Canada (71 per cent of men and 64 per cent of women), with the seven per cent gap keeping with the national average. “Men in St. John’s earn $11,000 more per year than do women (with average earnings for men at $40,930 and women at $29,280).” However, “St. John’s has among the worst scores on the gap between men’s and women’s poverty rates — with 12% of women living below the Low Income Measure, compared to 9% of men.”

Leadership: St. John’s ranked 19 out of 20 in the area of leadership because it is the only city of all 20 that currently has no women on city council. Women’s membership on city council has historically been low, but this is the first time St. John’s has not had at least one woman on council since 1969. “The city fares better in the area of women’s representation in senior management jobs,” however, the report says, “with one woman for every two men in top management jobs.”

Health and well-being: The health indicator was determined by how men and women perceive their own health, and St. John’s landed second on the list. According to the report, 65 per cent of women in St. John’s perceive their health as good or excellent, compared to 55 per cent of men. Women and men equally perceive high levels of stress, at 13% for both groups, and women in St. John’s “have better than average access to sexual and reproductive health clinics, with three clinics serving the least populous of the top 20 cities.”

Security: There were over 600 incidents of sexual and domestic violence reported in St. John’s last year, putting the city on average with other Canadian cities. However, up to 90 per cent of all incidents of sexual and domestic violence go unreported, so these numbers are by no means accurate. Recent efforts by the RNC to direct attention and best practices to dealing with violence against women means St. John’s could see some improvements in this area.

Education: “Women have greater levels of educational attainment at the high school, college and university level,” the report says. “However, men outnumber women amongst trades and apprenticeships at a rate of nearly two to one.”

No surprise, but everything’s tied together

While interesting and useful for educational purposes, three influential women in St. John’s say any amount of gender inequality is an indicator that we still have a long way to go.

“I wasn’t surprised to see where we were, but by no means [am] living under an illusion that we can sit down on our laurels,” says Linda Ross, President and CEO of the Provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women for Newfoundland and Labrador.

“We know that women are poorer than men,” she says. “It’s a fact and I think there’s certainly efforts being made to change that. I mean, I think the emphasis that’s been placed on having women enter into more of the skilled trades areas and what were traditionally more male dominated roles…is an attempt to try and change some of that, to get women into higher paying jobs.”

While crime rates have been declining in almost all Canadian cities in recent years, Statistics Canada’s police-reported crime stats for 2012 indicate the crime rate drop in St. John’s hasn’t been keeping pace with most Canadian cities, while violent crime has in fact been on the rise here, though is still much lower than bigger cities on the mainland.

“I think for the most part women do feel safe in the city; they do feel that they can go out and enjoy themselves,” says Ross. “Certainly things are different than what they were 15 years ago here, but I also think there’s a lot more awareness of that. Certainly the community’s much more aware of issues and that things have changed. I think the police recognize that things have changed as the economic situation has changed.”

Struggling to end violence against women

According to the provincial government’s Violence Prevention Initiative website, approximately half of all women over the age of 15 living in the province will face sexual or physical violence at least once in their lifetime, and only 10 per cent of those incidents will be reported to police.

Last October, in the span of nine days, a double murder-suicide in Conception Bay South shook the city and province, while nine days later in another case of domestic violence, a St. John’s man struck and killed a woman with a car in Airport Heights.

In March the St. John's event for the annual global women's rights event One Billion Rising focused on calling for the reinstatement of the Family Violence Intervention Court. Photo by Jenne Nolan.
In March the St. John’s event for the annual global women’s rights movement One Billion Rising focused on calling for the reinstatement of the Family Violence Intervention Court. Photo by Jenne Nolan.

“I think there’s much more of a light being shone on the issues of both sexual violence and domestic violence,” says Ross. “The tragedy of it is, of course, it gets more attention only when the tragedy happens, and of course as you know we’ve had a series of violent murders of women who are from our province…and I think that’s given a lot of attention to the issue. But I think during that whole process there’s been a lot of discussion around the fact that domestic violence and sexual violence isn’t just the problem of the individuals involved; it’s all our problem and we have a responsibility to try to ensure the safety of our communities and people living in them, and turning a blind eye and saying that’s their personal business, it’s just not acceptable.”

Leslie MacLeod, Executive Director of the St. John’s Women’s Centre at Marguerite’s Place, is on the frontlines of the battle against domestic and sexual violence against women.

“When we have a significant amount of domestic violence, and while we need a number of tools to help individuals and communities cope with this, one of the things that we need is the reinstatement of the Family Violence Intervention Court,” she says.

The Family Violence Intervention Court (FVIC) was a progressive initiative of the province’s design. It began operating in 2009 and its proponents, including the government itself, say it was effective in addressing the root causes of domestic violence. At a cost of $500,000 per year, however, it was deemed too expensive and was slashed in the Progressive Conservatives’ 2013 austerity budget. Women’s rights advocates have been lobbying for its reinstatement ever since.

“Awareness programs don’t stop someone who’s already being violent — they just don’t work that way,” adds MacLeod. “So we certainly need that tool back. We do have increased police presence in the area of domestic violence but we’re still facing a culture of violence against women and girls in this province, there’s no doubt about it. We still have to do some real education shifts as well as prevention and intervention measures, as well as counseling and education. So we need lots more done around that. And the sexual violence is hand in hand with that.”

Sexual and reproductive health support

MacLeod also says the CCPA report is timely because St. John’s is doing “exceptionally well” in the area of women’s access to sexual and reproductive health support, though it’s particularly important to protect the hard-earned rights women have earned and continue lobbying for better funding for such services.

The Planned Parenthood Sexual Health Centre in St. John’s, for instance, is “significantly underfunded” by the province, says MacLeod. “It doesn’t receive nearly the amount of funding it should receive given the important sexual health services that it provides to women and men in our city,”

Similarly, the province’s only abortion clinic, located in St. John’s, depends on provincial laws that allow women to self-refer themselves to the clinic without the permission of a doctor. “Of course with the incoming Premier’s personal views on reproductive choice, everyone is feeling that this hard won fight for access to legalized, safe abortions may be in jeopardy,” says MacLeod. “It’s really important to note that access through the Health Sciences Centre and the Athena centre is one of the things that has propelled us up to the top three in the country as a good place for women to live.”

Education and the income gap

MacLeod praises certain progressive actions on the government’s part for helping level the playing field for women in St. John’s and around the province. “I think our province has done an admirable job of keeping the university tuition the lowest in the country, which has increased women and men’s access to post-secondary education — that’s something to be applauded for sure,” she says. “We know that [education] rates correlate quite closely with income levels so it’s an important thing for the people of our province and for the women of our province to have access to.”

With women in St. John’s earning on average $11,000 less per year than men, MacLeod says the provincially-funded Office to Advance Women Apprentices is an important tool to address that gap.

“The report…says we do have some good measures that are being taken across the country to reduce the gaps and increase the equity across genders. I would think that the Office to Advance Women Apprentices is one of those strong measures that needs to be maintained.”

Affordable childcare a “major issue”

One of the big challenges women often face when attaining an education or entering and moving up in the workforce, says MacLeod, is their family’s ability to pay for childcare.

“That’s a major issue for women and results in women coming out of the workforce when they can’t find childcare that’s affordable in their community and can’t afford to actually work while the children are young,” she explains. “So lack of childcare is going to hold women back, and families and the province for the foreseeable future.”

On a positive note, the province’s recent decision to invest in all-day kindergarten beginning in 2016 will help alleviate some of the burden for at least one year.

“I’ve certainly heard lots of women having a huge sigh of relief with that one,” says MacLeod, “because it’s a nightmare to coordinate having a kindergarten that flips from mornings to afternoons to make it even more complicated, and trying to get the transportation to get the childcare to get kids back and forth to a couple places is exhausting for them, and sometimes impossible.

“You see childcare centres around the city but there’s wait lists and the fees are astronomical in many cases,” she continues. “Our province, unfortunately, the majority of child care centres are in the for-profit making category — they’re profit-making businesses. In Quebec, where they’ve been able to keep the rates low, the majority are non-profit, and there’s a huge difference between how the monies get spent in a profit-making business providing childcare and a non-profit childcare. If we had the flip, if the majority of ours were non-profit, the rates would be affordable … We haven’t done enough to encourage the not for profit childcare at all while the corporate type of childcare has really boomed.”

Leadership and the bigger picture

Sheilagh O’Leary, NDP candidate in the recent Virgina-Waters provincial by-election, says women’s involvement in politics and the public sector is key to bringing about the necessary changes to narrow the gender inequality gap. Prior to last year’s municipal election O’Leary was one of three women on St. John’s city council, but now there are no women on council.

“We know that in Newfoundland and Labrador there are a lot of women leaders … I find that there’s a lot of women who are in leadership roles in their communities but oftentimes it’s volunteer based or behind the scenes, and so oftentimes they don’t rise to the surface and they don’t get the credit necessarily that oftentimes comes with the kind of hard work that it entails.”

On Saturday O’Leary will help facilitate a daylong workshop in St. John’s hosted by Equal Voices, a national organization that encourages women to enter politics.

Sheilagh O'Leary. File photo.
Sheilagh O’Leary. File photo.

“We’re trying to…increase the pool. We’re trying to make sure we have women who are actively interested and involved in throwing their name into the ring,” she explains. “Because we know it is absolutely essential to have that voice at the table, that women have a different perspective and it will bring about different ways of mediating, different ways of communicating and discussing issues, besides the actual content itself. I mean who better to bring forward [ideas about] ongoing issues of childcare and issues like that?

“[W]hether we like it or not women are oftentimes still the ones who are in that kind of [traditional] role in our society, even though we have two member working families and things like that. But the family dynamic has shifted so much, [and] the reality is that sometimes what’s happening is we’re seeing women doubling up. So how do we encourage women…who’ve got so much on their plate as it is, to want to actually stick their neck out into an oftentimes very volatile situation, where you do have your neck on the line and the media are going to take you to task, and sometimes it’s not very pleasant? And even the relationships with your colleagues. How do you encourage women to get involved in that kind of activity? Well for me, it’s empowerment. And you know the fact that I know that I have a voice that I can bring forward, and certainly I’d like to be a mentor to other women to encourage them to get involved because you know what, you can make positive change happen.”

Ross agrees and says a greater presence of women in leadership roles in both the public and private sectors is key to closing the inequality gap between women and men.

“When you look at it, whether it’s in elected office at any level of government or whether it’s a leadership role inside a corporation or inside government in the senior positions, we need more women,” she says. “Because when you have women you have different types of policies in place. And when we’re talking about women’s incomes in the province I want to be perfectly frank: we have women’s employment plans that are tied to all of the major projects in the natural resource sector, and that exists because we had someone in Natural Resources who ensured that that went there, and that was Kathy Dunderdale.

“Having women may bring a different perspective — they think about things differently than men, just as the reverse is true; you need both. And the fact that we don’t have any women on city council…shame on us. But we need the numbers to be able to run for these positions, and you need to change the thinking around what the skill sets are and the way business is conducted.”

Leadership is one avenue to gender equality, O’Leary strongly feels. “But I think that we need to make sure that we keep our eye on a much larger picture, which is overall mental health and well-being,” she says. “And of course one way to get to that is through financial equity and supports in areas [like] childcare.

“I didn’t see a lot about childcare [in the CCPA report] but I know that childcare is a huge strain for a lot of women, and it certainly is the reason why many women may or may not decide to enter into a political field or even to a senior management position in the corporate sector. These are things that keep women from necessarily being on the same level [as men], so I think we have to be very cognizant of those things and how we can support those efforts to make sure that women can work and still be supportive in the home, just like the men can be as well.”

The Equal Voice forum dedicated to involving more women in politics will take place at the Foran Room at St. John’s City Hall on Saturday, April 26, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is $20 and participants can register on site at 9:30 a.m.

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to an article on or address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome thoughtful and articulate Letters to the Editor. You can email yours to: justin(at)theindependent(dot)ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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