St. John’s a mediocre place to be a woman

While the gender gap may be narrowing in some areas, other trends are deeply troubling.

St. John’s is a better place for women to live in 2016 than it was the previous year.

But it still has a long way to go in approaching equality.

That’s according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ annual report on the ‘Best and Worst Places to be a Woman in Canada’, which analyzes the gender gap in 25 Canadian cities.

St. John’s has had a rocky journey in the rankings since the CCPA began doing the annual survey in 2014. That inaugural year St. John’s scored exceptionally well, coming in third nationally. But further refinement of the study’s methodology revealed this was not actually an accurate reflection of the city’s performance. Fine-tuning that methodology revealed that in the areas where St. John’s scored high, it was only slightly better than the national average; whereas in the areas where St. John’s scored poorly, the gap was dramatic.

Under the revamped methodology, in 2015 St. John’s plummeted to 15th spot out of the 25 major Canadian cities studied. It scored particularly poorly in economic security for women and in women’s leadership.

The 2016 study was released on Oct. 13 and this year St. John’s comes in at number eight. It’s a jump due largely to improvements in economic security and in women’s leadership, according to Kate McInturff, author of the report.

But don’t get too excited. The survey measures the gender gap—so a high mark on economic security doesn’t necessarily mean that women are doing a lot better, but rather that the gap between men and women is narrowing. That’s a positive outcome for equality, but not necessarily for overall economic security for residents of the city. Also, the rankings are relative to other cities. So the overall jump from 15th spot to eighth spot might not mean only that St. John’s is improving, but that other cities are sliding.

The improvement in women’s leadership comes not from elected leadership—City Council—but rather from promoting women managers, at which St. John’s has proven better than the national average. But when it comes to elected leadership, the City’s performance is still abysmal.

“It’s a common problem across Canada. Very few cities come anywhere near parity,” said McInturff.

“That really points to a problem we have Canada-wide, which is we’ve made the shift to say women should work, women should have access to higher education…but we haven’t quite adjusted our ideas about leadership to the population that we have. We’re not electing those women in a way that reflects the qualifications of those women. That’s a gap we need to close in terms of our social norms.”

McInturff points out that women’s poor earnings and poverty rates play a role in this too. Given the considerable amount of money it costs to run a successful election campaign, women’s lower earnings and other economic barriers impedes their ability to run a successful campaign, she explained.

Violent crime against women on the rise

Nationally, one trend in particular is a disturbing one. Based on Statistics Canada surveys on violent crime that are conducted every five years, for the first time ever women are more likely than men to be victims of violent crime. This is attributed to high rates of sexual assault, which unlike many other types of crime have not dropped in the past 20 years. McInturff said a similarly troubling trend has been noted in the United Kingdom.

“I think what it tells us is what women’s organizations have been saying for a long time, which is that gender-based violence is a specific kind of crime and it needs specific solutions,” she explained. “The kinds of things that lower property crime are not going to lower sexual assault crimes.”

McInturff pointed out that this data is based on self-reported assaults, and that only a small percentage of assaults are reported, indicating that the problem is an even bigger one than it appears.

The report notes that its consideration of ‘women’ is necessarily limited because Statistics Canada and other surveys on which it relies still only consider ‘male’ or ‘female’ categories, providing no real data on trans or other identities. Additionally, the report notes that “annual surveys of poverty levels and unemployment do not break down results by race, immigration status, disability, sexual identity, or Aboriginal status. Yet both the census data and qualitative research demonstrates that these intersecting lines of identity make a significant difference.”

Jenny Wright is Executive Director of the St. John’s Status of Women Council. She warns that some of the indicators in the report paint too rosy a picture, and that drilling further into the data provides a more nuanced perspective. Because the report relies on national survey data it has limited ability to capture local trends, and Wright notes that the on-the-ground work of women’s organizations has revealed some of those more detailed local phenomena.

 Anecdotally what we know on the ground is there’s a huge link between economic insecurity and the rise of violence against women. — Jenny Wright, St. John’s Status of Women Council

For instance, she warns that positive trends in women’s leadership has occurred primarily in the public service provincially, not the corporate world. She cited the example of Nalcor, which came under fire earlier this year when it was revealed 96 percent of the top earners at that corporation were male.

Wright also emphasized that there are strong links between some of the indicators, for instance economic insecurity and violence.

“Anecdotally what we know on the ground is there’s a huge link between economic insecurity and the rise of violence against women. When the economy crashes and is not doing well, and men are not doing well, then rates of violence go up. Is there a correlation between the economic crash that we are experiencing, and how women see their security and safety? We certainly know anecdotally on the ground that it happens,” she said.

The lingeringly high—and in some cases rising—levels of violence against women does not come as a surprise to Wright; she pointed out it’s something the province’s women’s organizations have been calling for action around for years.

“Last night we did the vigil for missing and murdered Indigenous women in the province and we did a call to action again for a comprehensive, coordinated plan in the province to end violence against women,” she said.

“Violent crimes in general are on the decrease but that is not true when it comes to violent crimes against women. What we’re seeing with physical or sexual violence against women is that it’s either stayed at the same level, or in some areas it’s rising. For instance rural areas, areas where there have been economic collapses like Newfoundland.”

“It’s horrible that we’re not seeing any changes, and it’s because we’re under-resourced and doing band-aid work,” she said. “We need to start young with children, talking about embracing consent and healthy relationships. We need immediate massive change to our childhood educational programs including sex ed. If we can get in there and change that, that is where we’re going to end the cycle of violence for good.”

Need to embrace community knowledge

The survey shows that St. John’s—and indeed Canada as a whole—has a lot of work yet to do in achieving true equality. What needs to be done to improve things?

“One thing I would say is there is a wealth of knowledge within our communities,” said McInturff. “There have been women’s organizations working on this a long time. But they do not always get a seat at the table when decisions are made, and they are understaffed and under-resourced, so they don’t always have the time to bring those insights to decision makers. Decision makers could do a lot more to draw on the resources that are there in their community. The folk that are affected by unemployment, poverty—they have real insight on what we need.

“I think the answers are there in our communities and we just need to make more of an effort to talk to the folks that have them, and give them the resources to do the work that they do.”

Wright strongly agrees.

“This chronic underfunding of women-led organizations is in itself a pervasive form of violence against women. By barely funding organizations, by band-aid solutions and by over-stretching resources, we’re leaving women vulnerable. And then we see really bad policies like closing rural courthouses, that really put women’s lives at risk.

“The correlation between losing economic security, and rising violence against women, is there.”

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