For our special 50th anniversary issue, Canada’s brightest, boldest, and most rebellious thinkers, doers, and creators share their best big ideas. Through ideas macro and micro, radical and everyday, we present 50 essays, think pieces, and calls to action. Picture: plans for sustainable food systems, radical legislation, revolutionary health care, a greener planet, Indigenous self-government, vibrant cities, safe spaces, peaceful collaboration, and more—we encouraged our writers to dream big, to hope, and to courageously share their ideas and wish lists for our collective better future. Here’s to another 50 years!
Christine Lagarde’s quip during the 2008 global financial meltdown raised hackles and elicited laughter. “If only Lehman Brothers had had a few sisters,” the then-finance minister of France observed, “we might not be in this mess.” But her off-the-cuff critique of the testosterone-fuelled risk-taking of predominantly male investment bankers precipitating the financial collapse is bolstered by academic research. And it speaks to a greater truth: Ensuring that women’s voices are heard as often as men’s, and that their perspectives exert similar influence, is critical to our collective future—not just in pursuit of more stable economic markets.
It may seem that Canada has achieved necessary parity, given the ample evidence of how much more powerful women’s voices are today. In Justin Trudeau’s gender-balanced federal cabinet, strong, articulate female ministers manage justice, health, and the environment portfolios. Three of the country’s most populous provinces are led by women, and we’ve had a female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court since 2000.
And yet, in the grander scheme of things—including the realms of business, sports, and entertainment—women’s voices remain seriously under-represented. Even though women have made up more than 60 percent of university graduates for some years now, and contribute at senior levels in virtually every sector, elected officials across the country still average threequarters male. And independent Canadian research conducted in fall 2015 found that men’s perspectives continue to outnumber women’s by three or four to one in many of the nation’s most influential news media.
For the sake of all our futures, we need to change that. It’s now widely understood that in countries around the world where women’s voices count, everybody’s prospects are enhanced. A raft of respected research also makes clear that including the views of competent women leads to better business decisions and more rigorous science.
The truth is that many women’s day-to-day realities remain profoundly different from their male relatives and colleagues. Because they conceive, bear, and—for the most part—remain more responsible for raising children, women not only have different life experiences, but society also views and treats women differently. It’s not surprising that their perspectives and priorities reflect that.
It’s true that ceding the floor to women more often will shift the emphasis of our public discourse, and make us pay more attention to things currently not so prominent. But would less focus on hockey fights and more on health research be a bad thing? So-called “women’s issues” might get front-page treatment—even when the women aren’t wearing bikinis! And the downstream benefits include more family-friendly policies, stronger communities, and lower income inequality.
That said, our research finds that many female experts are less eager to be interviewed and pontificate than their male colleagues. Critics have argued women’s voices aren’t as prominent because most women aren’t arrogant enough to think they have all the answers. That, too, seems like a benefit; as any news producer or astute observer can tell you, microphone hogs don’t always deliver value-added commentary.
Informed Opinions, the non-profit project I lead, has worked with more than a thousand female experts across Canada in almost every field. These women have deep knowledge about important issues, and hundreds of them are now sharing their experience-informed analysis of current issues with the broader public. We all benefit as a result.
In an effort to assess what difference their amplified voices are making, we recently conducted an experiment, creating a word cloud out of 100 news commentaries penned by women and published in daily newspapers. When we compared the most prominent words in their analyses to those most prominent in commentaries written by men, we discovered that all sorts of topics get significantly less attention when women’s voices aren’t present. These include: access, assault, care, discrimination, equality, families, justice, policy, services, sexual support, treatment, and violence.
Canada’s self-definition is one that privileges equality of rights and opportunities, public health care, and social justice. Ensuring that women’s voices in all their diversity have as much influence as men’s is essential to not only building on that identity, but supporting our future success.
Illustration by Matthew Daley
Shari Graydon is the catalyst of Informed Opinions, a non-profit project of Media Action that’s working to bridge the gender gap in Canadian public discourse by 2020.