St. John’s not so great for women, after all

Improved methodology reveals St. John’s high ranking in 2014 gender gap study was premature.

When St. John’s ranked #3 nationally in last year’s ‘Best and Worst Places To Be A Woman’ survey, there was no shortage of media coverage and self-congratulation.

This year’s survey paints a very different picture. St. John’s ranked 15 out of 25 — in the bottom half of the pack. But it also turns out things weren’t quite as rosy as they appeared in 2014.

The survey, conducted by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) and published for the first time in 2014, assesses the gendered performance of major Canadian cities along five main indicators: economic security, education, health, leadership, and personal security (safety). It compares the differences between men and women in these five areas, in order to reveal the gender gap in different Canadian cities.

This year, Victoria ranked number one, while Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo ranked worst. The reason for St. John’s considerably poorer performance in 2015 is not so much that it’s slipped (although it has slid in certain categories), but that the methodology has been improved — so it turns out last year’s ranking was a more positive one than St. John’s deserved.

“Last year’s index painted a bit too rosy a picture,” explained Iglika Ivanova, senior economist and public interest researcher with the CCPA. “Improvements in the methodology this year have resulted in a more accurate ranking.”

The improved methodology revealed that in the areas in which St. John’s ranks well, its better performance is not significantly better than other cities. But in the areas where St. John’s ranks poorly, the performance gap is more dramatic.

“The reality is that the gaps among cities in terms of health equity or access to education—the indicators St. John’s does particularly well on—are much smaller than the gaps in economic security and leadership (indicators with middle-of-the-road and poor performance, respectively). St. John’s 15th place ranking in 2015 reflects this, while in 2014 the fact that St. John’s did only slightly better than other cities in health, education and security was weighted too heavily in the final ranking.”

The improvements over last year’s methodology, coupled with a broader sampling base of Canadian cities, helped to reveal a clearer picture of St. John’s strengths and weaknesses. The fact that the 2013 municipal election led to a city council with not a single female councillor also contributed to the city’s poor performance.

“St. John’s slip in leadership—it remains second-to-last—and police-reported violence is due to the addition of new cities that scored better. There’s been an improvement in economic security—more specifically a smaller reported gender earnings gap—and a small deterioration in the health component. More women reported high stress levels than the previous year, and the increase was much larger than what was seen among men.”

Jenny Wright is Executive Director of the St. John’s Status of Women Council. She recalls being surprised by St. John’s high ranking last year.

“We were all very shocked when that came out,” she says. “I remember it was very different from what we were hearing on the ground.”

The city’s poor performance in the revised and updated ranking comes as less of a surprise to her.

“I’m not surprised but I am disappointed. I think the key factor that dropped us down was women in leadership in this city,” Wright says.

“We have a city council that has absolutely no women on it, which really is very challenging for women in the city. We end up having absolutely no representation of women, no women’s innovation, we have people making very big decisions about how women and families live in this city and we have no input into that.”

An important part of improving the city’s gender gap is turning that governance gap around, she says.

“We absolutely need more women’s representation on council. It’s very disconcerting that we have a council in 2015 with no women representing. There are ways the city can work to promote women’s leadership, by working with young women, with women’s organizations, to say we need your insight, we need your lens, we need your representation when we look at things.

“In terms of leadership I think we really need to actively prioritize, nurture and promote women coming up in leadership positions.”

In addition to leadership, St. John’s also had a mediocre performance in economic security for women. It’s a reality that Wright is all too familiar with.

“What we see in our city is a lot of women have part-time or precarious housing. This is a result of the economic boom which women do not directly benefit from. We also see very clearly in that report there’s a real lack of women in senior management positions. There’s a clear correlation there where we see women are not benefiting from the economic boom,” she explains.

“I think we have to break through the old boys’ club. We have a lot to offer on a lot of levels, not only in representation and leadership roles but businesses do much better when they have strong women in management and board roles.”

Wright also flags the importance of early education to inspire young women to pursue leadership roles. “Women are often not asked, or nurtured into leadership careers and roles.”

Despite the city’s grim showing, Wright’s resolve to work for change remains firm.

“I’m always hopeful. I think change can come,” she says.

“We need to keep out there, we need to keep advocating, we need to keep it in the public dialogue. Let people see the research about the real benefit to societies and cities and economies when women are full participants. So I am hopeful. I’m really hopeful that it will turn around.”

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