Government of Alberta

A Gendered Lens

Why Alberta needs the Status of Women ministry

By Alexandra Zabjek

Stephanie McLean was doing the baby bounce. It’s the rhythmic up-and-down jiggle an adult holding a baby often does to soothe the child. Pediatricians suggest babies enjoy constant movement, as it emulates motions experienced in utero. Moms, dads, aunties, uncles—anyone, really, who has tried to keep an infant content has inevitably participated in this gentle dance.

In this case McLean was standing in the Legislature rotunda with her infant son nestled in a baby carrier that pressed his body against her chest. In that moment after the throne speech on March 8, 2016, McLean was both acting as mom to a newborn and symbol for why the Ministry of Status of Women, which she had recently been tapped to lead, was necessary.

After all, some had paused to reflect when McLean, only days before giving birth, was named to Premier Rachel Notley’s cabinet. Such positions are demanding and all-encompassing. Is it realistic or ideal to take on such work while also caring for a newborn?

As McLean herself says, that kind of question is not unique to cabinet ministers. Working mothers across the province face tough choices associated with childcare, return-to-work schedules and personal and societal expectations. That’s part of the reason the NDP government formed a ministry for the status of women, the province’s first.

For as much as women and men are constitutionally guaranteed equal rights in Canada, women still confront issues and barriers not faced by men. “In Alberta we’re still far from the goal of equality for women,” McLean says. “We got the vote 100 years ago but that wasn’t the end of the story. Rates of violence against women are high, the gendered wage gap is larger than in most jurisdictions, and women are still the majority of responsible caregivers, whether for children or other family members.”

“We’re still far from the goal of equality. Women got the vote 100 years ago but that wasn’t the end of the story.” Stephanie McLean, Status of Women Minister

Alberta’s Status of Women is one of nine such provincial ministries across Canada, and the newest among them. But as with many things in those early days of NDP power, the work was tentative. The ministry initially had a tiny budget of just over $1-million and lacked a mandate. In what seemed an attempt to highlight women’s ability to multitask, Shannon Phillips had been expected to head the new ministry while simultaneously running the most controversial portfolio in government, Environment and Parks.

At the time, the Notley government said it wished to hear from women on what they wanted from the ministry before committing to a firm direction. Eight months later, in February 2016, McLean took over the Status of Women portfolio from Phillips. She told the Edmonton Journal the government’s survey found women wanted the ministry to “be bold, be courageous and take a stance for women and girls across the province.”

That direction remained vague. But with a budget increase to $7.6-million for 2016–2017, the ministry under McLean set out a mandate to work on three areas: helping women enter leadership roles, eliminating and preventing violence against women and girls, and initiatives to get women out of poverty.

To get Alberta women into leadership roles, the province has some work to do. In photographs of Edmonton’s city council, for example, you sometimes have to look twice to find a woman—Bev Esslinger is the only one sitting among 12 councillors and one mayor. She’s not an anomaly in Alberta, where women hold just 26 per cent of elected municipal positions.

Move from city halls to Alberta’s public boards and corporate offices and the story repeats itself. Women comprised 30 per cent of the membership of provincial public agencies, boards and commissions (ABCs) when the NDP came to power in 2015. Women held only 9 per cent of board positions on Alberta-based TSX-listed companies.

These statistics are part of the reason McLean has a mandate to reduce barriers that keep women from leadership positions or running for office.

“Our work around women in leadership is probably where we’ve made the biggest strides,” she says. “Some of that was by example, with premier Notley deciding to have the first gender-balanced cabinet in the country.” McLean notes that the Alberta Securities Commission late last year adopted a rule requiring Alberta companies to disclose the number of women on their boards and in management and to create targets for female representation—or to explain their reasons for not doing so.

The province’s ABC system governs everything from post-secondary institutions to provincial recycling programs and Alberta–Ukraine relations. During 44 years of PC rule, ABC positions became landing pads for Tory patronage appointments. The NDP has attempted to blow up the ABC system as it existed and, in the process, to balance the gender breakdown in its leadership roles.

Some of the initiatives have been simple: creating a single website listing all ABCs, the positions available and the compensation. Some of the work by McLean’s ministry has been persuasive, such as asking qualified women to seek positions. “The ask” is considered a significant step to get women involved in leadership roles, as studies show that men will step up and run on their own while women often need to be asked more than once.

The Notley government wants to see 50 per cent of Alberta’s ABC appointments filled by women by the next election. There’s no official quota, but Status of Women has been working with the executive council to ensure gender is considered when roles are filled. Previously when appointments came to cabinet, “no breakdown was provided for the gender balance on any of these boards,” McLean says. “That was one of the things we required… to consider that and look at unconscious bias and try to correct the balance.”

Last May, j’Amey Holroyd was appointed by Advanced Education minister Marlin Schmidt as the first female to chair the Alberta Apprenticeship and Industry Training Board in the organization’s 71-year history. When five members were appointed in September to the board of governors for Athabasca University, three were women: Debby Kronewitt-Martin, Cheryl Hunter-Loewen and Lynn Hamilton.

Women now hold about 40 per cent of ABC appointments in Alberta—a one-third increase in just two years.

On the municipal government front, McLean visited Calgary, Edmonton, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat as part of a campaign to encourage women to run in 2017’s municipal elections. Women in these cities asked McLean, Esslinger and Morinville mayor Lisa Holmes about everything from what it’s like to run a campaign to what they thought of Hillary Clinton’s treatment by male voters and by Donald Trump. Based on feedback, the Status of Women ministry launched a webpage full of resources for Alberta women considering a municipal run (“Ready for Her”). Another such provincial tour is slated for later this year.

Meanwhile, data on domestic and sexual violence is elusive. Such crimes are considered vastly under-reported, and the direct surveys that best gauge such offences are not frequently conducted. In the 2014 General Social Survey on Victimization, Alberta ranked third among the provinces for rates of self-reported spousal abuse. A 2012 study commissioned by the Canadian Women’s Foundation found that nearly three-quarters of Albertans say they know a woman who has been physically or sexually abused—the worst rate among the provinces.

The underlying causes of domestic violence are complex and numerous. Stopping such violence is an equally complex challenge. “The more we can advance women’s equality, the more women can fully participate, the more that policies are reviewed from the perspective of women’s needs, the safer our communities become for women and children,” says Jan Reimer, director of the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters.

Reimer was thrilled when the NDP government announced a stand-alone ministry for the status of women. She hopes it is encouraging other departments to look at policies through the lens of gender. The government often has “a poverty initiative, a housing initiative, a violence against women initiative,” she says. “But these issues are interrelated. With a status of women office, we start looking at things from the perspective of how they impact women—and it makes a huge difference. No one’s been asking those questions in the past.”

Reimer points to housing-first strategies, for example, which focus on putting the chronically homeless into apartments before dealing with their addictions and mental health needs. While widely applauded, this strategy nonetheless disproportionately helps men. Reimer notes that homeless women tend to couch-surf or work in the sex trade as a means to find a place to stay. They’re less likely to sleep on the street.

The ministry has been tasked to ensure government departments do exactly what Reimer proposes, through a tool called gender-based analysis. The technique is now being taught widely through the MLA and civil service ranks so that all government policies are analyzed for how they specifically affect women.

Since the ministry was formed, other departments have pumped $3.5-million into violence prevention programs and announced $15-million in enhanced supports for women and children affected by violence. The government also provided support to Deborah Drever, who as an independent MLA championed a private member’s bill that permitted victims of family violence to end a tenancy agreement early, without financial penalty. But a comprehensive plan to combat sexual violence that was supposed to be released in 2016 has yet to be completed.

McLean says the previous, PC government announced such an anti-violence plan but tasked only a couple of staff with implementing it. Civil servants “didn’t have the power and the drive of a stand-alone ministry and a dedicated deputy minister to go around and get buy-in from other departments,” she says. “There’s been a cultural shift in our government within the top levels because we’re constantly, as ministers, asking for metrics.” As a result, “there’s a lot more buy-in across all government departments when we’re talking about gendered issues.”

The ministry’s final priority is to help get women out of poverty. Alberta has the largest gender income gap in Canada, with the average after-tax income of women amounting to just 60 per cent of their male counterparts, according to a 2016 Parkland Institute report by Kathleen Lahey, a Queen’s University professor.

In a province still dominated by the oil and gas sector, gendered employment gaps sometimes stare us in the face—as in boom times, when men head to work “in the patch,” often for earnings reaching six figures for physical labour or driving a truck. In such a work environment, fewer women enter the labour force. They are also more likely, writes Lahey, to take on childcare duties. Add to this Alberta’s lack of affordable childcare options, and women are not only deterred from seeking work but less likely to return to full-time work.

How can one government ministry tackle the entire socioeconomic setup of a province? McLean said her ministry is encouraging more women to enter the trades as electricians, crane operators or construction workers—an effort that could be helped by Holroyd’s chairing the Alberta Apprenticeship and Industry Training Board. Trades in Alberta tend to be unionized, McLean added, which can help standardize women’s and men’s wages.

It may benefit Alberta women that premier Notley is emphasizing diversifying the provincial economy—for example, by incentivizing the energy industry to create more downstream jobs in upgrading rather than focusing on extraction and exporting raw goods, a field which continues to be dominated by men.

The NDP government has also introduced a $25-a-day daycare pilot, beginning this year, in which 1,000 publicly subsidized spaces will be created at 22 centres across the province. Daycare spaces are currently at a premium in Alberta, and “improving access to child care will support more women to remain in or enter the workforce, [moving] us one step closer to equality,” McLean said in a press release last November when announcing the pilot.

But perhaps the NDP government’s most significant move to improve the economic position of women in this province has been to raise the minimum wage. Despite the best efforts of a seemingly on-the-verge-of-broke employer lobby, Alberta will have a $15 per hour minimum wage by 2018. It’s a move that will disproportionately help women, who make up 61 per cent of the province’s 350,500 workers earning less than that $15 threshold.

Minimum wage is a women’s issue. McLean’s ministry was active on the file, the minister says, despite the fact it was her counterpart at Alberta Labour, Christina Gray, who eventually introduced the new minimum wage legislation. In the same way, the Minister of Community and Social Services, Irfan Sabir, and premier Notley herself are often credited with championing the $25-a-day daycare pilot, though Status of Women was intimately involved in its creation.

“Looking at things from the perspective of how they impact women… makes a huge difference.” Jan Reimer, director, Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters

Stephanie McLean suggests her ministry’s determination that all policies be viewed through a gendered lens has contributed to a deeper understanding of issues such as poverty and wage disparity—and how to fix them. This might ultimately result in even more “women’s issues” coming to the fore, including the lack of funding for maternal health services such as midwifery.

In this way, the minister’s main contribution may be to put ideas in motion that result in other ministries creating (and getting credit for) initiatives that ultimately benefit women.

McLean’s job may be made easier by the fact that so many of Alberta’s other ministries are now run by women, and by her caucus being almost at gender parity. Following the NDP’s landslide victory in 2015, the face of our government itself has changed. It seems obvious (and research agrees) that having more women at government tables changes conversations, leading legislators to consider policies more inclusive of women. In creating a stand-alone ministry for the status of women, the NDP has taken matters one step further. 

Reporter and podcaster Alexandra Zabjek lives in Edmonton.

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