Gender politics

Monday, 30 May 2005
Andrea Mrozek

Yes, but what does it mean for women?" That's a question Canadian legislators will have to ask themselves every time they draft new policy, now that "gender-based analysis" is on the way to being implemented across the board federally. No longer will female-focused issues, like maternity leave and national day-care programs, be the only sorts of policies that need be considerate of the feelings of Canadian ladies. Ottawa's position on UN reform, its stance on the American missile defence program, even the amount of foreign investment allowed in your RRSP--any federal policy may soon have to undergo careful examination to ensure that the specific needs of women are being addressed.

In response to pressure from some female MPs in the governing party and Canadian women's groups, GBA--also sometimes called "gender mainstreaming"--has already been implemented in some ministries, including Health Canada and the Justice Department. At the March federal Liberal convention in Ottawa, delegates tabled a resolution to broaden the application of gender analysis to make it mandatory in all departments--from Infrastructure to Trade, from Natural Resources to Parks. The initiative to make GBA into law was passed by a policy workshop, but was not presented to the entire party. It is now considered a "take note" item, says Steven MacKinnon, national director of the Liberal party--meaning that it's being presented to the government as a potential policy option. And MacKinnon predicts it's only a matter of time (presuming the Liberals don't lose any elections any time soon) before GBA is presented to Parliament. "I have no doubt it will be brought up again," he stresses. "There are certainly no people better placed to advance that cause than the caucus."

The "cause," so to speak, is to undo what some claim is a gender-bias that exists in Canadian policy-making. The idea for widespread use of gender-based analysis was born at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. Delegates included it in their creation of a "Platform for Action" to identify goals for overcoming obstacles to women's advancement in the world. A decade later, a follow-up to that meeting, Beijing +10, was held in New York in March. "GBA facilitates the development and assessment of policies and legislation from a gender perspective so that they will have intended and equitable results for women and men, girls and boys," says a 1998 report entitled Gender-Based Analysis: A guide for policy-making, produced by the Status of Women Canada. "As in much of the world, Canadian society operates in ways that lead to discrimination based on gender," the document goes on. "Today the concept of equality acknowledges that different treatment of women and men may sometimes be required to achieve sameness of results because of different life conditions or to compensate for past discrimination."

Proponents say that making Parliament more female-friendly simply ensures that laws passed by Ottawa don't have unintended negative consequences for women, something that, due to systematic discrimination in government, happens more often than most people realize. Carolyn Bennett, minister of state for public health, cites an example where changes in 1996 to the Employment Insurance Act ended up causing hardship for some mothers trying to collect unemployment benefits while on maternity leave. "One of the problems was that they had not done a GBA, and therefore, women who happened to have two babies too close together weren't eligible for re-entry [to the EI system]," says Bennett. "GBA is about getting it right the first time. You don't want to have these unintended consequences because you hadn't thought of it." Bennett's amazed at how GBA principles are at work in China, where, she says, it has been embraced by the Communist government. "When you're with the high-level people from the [Communist] party, they never give you a statistic without splitting it men and women," she says. "It's just part of their nature. There are women very high in the Communist party there and when you meet these women, they are serious players."

In her testimony to the standing committee on the status of women in the House of Commons on March 8, Caroline Weber, director general of policy planning for Health Canada--which formalized GBA in 1999--explained that the extra layer of analysis has led to more advanced testing of pharmaceuticals for women, and more inclusion of women in the testing of drugs generally. But in other federal departments, the tangible results of additional gender considerations are less manifest. The Justice Department spent $1.7 million in 2000 on a newly established Diversity and Gender Equality Office. But last year that office was disbanded altogether and instead, "the responsibility for ensuring the inclusion of a diversity and gender analysis is now the responsibility of each and every employee in the department," according to testimony at the same standing committee, from Karen Green, acting executive director, corporate services, at the Justice Department.

In 1995, the federal Liberals agreed to include gender analysis in all their macroeconomic policies and budgets, though women's groups are irritated that, so far, nothing has come of th commitment. Catherine Laidlaw-Sly, president of the National Council of Women of Canada, says one of the biggest challenges in Canada now is to ensure the Finance Ministry lives up to its pledge. The idea being that those policies that have been run through GBA analysis and subsequently adjusted to be more sensitive to women, would get priority when the finance minister determines his (or her, as the case may be) spending plans.

Economist Armine Yalnizyan, author of a report for the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action, entitled "Canada's Commitment to Equality: A Gender Analysis of the Last Ten Federal Budgets," says, for instance, that the trend toward "small government" in the spending pattern over the last decade, is in itself anti-woman. "The federal government of Canada tabled a budget in February of 1995 that introduced the broadest, deepest and most rapid set of program cuts this country has seen," says Yalnizyan. She argues that "women in Canada know from first-hand experience that government decisions to cut funding for key social programs, such as housing and social assistance, directly affect quality of life." But "there has been no systematic review of federal budgeting from women's standpoint to quantify the problem."

But allowing GBA to infiltrate the Finance Ministry, say critics, may have the effect of changing the way that government allocates spending to suit a very specific school of feminist theory--the sort espoused by GBA-supporting groups, like the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action. "GBA has a political bias to it," says Lydia Miljan, professor of political science at the University of Windsor, noting that the sort of feminist theory that informs GBA is not necessarily representative of all women in Canada. "This type of gender analysis is usually mute on intact families, on the regular average Canadian," she says. "It picks its winners and losers. It continues the policy path that we've had for the last three or four decades, and that is having the state replace families in terms of who is going to help women do better in life."

While organized women's groups almost uniformly see increased social spending as a necessary part of gender-sensitive policy, unrepresented in that viewpoint, say critics, is the less vocal segment of women in Canada who see smaller government as the ideal. Mothers who home-school their children might just be one of many groups of women who prefer minimal state intervention. But there are many other considerations that might motivate women to advocate for a more economically conservative approach. Segregating fiscal ideologies by gender just doesn't make sense, says Miljan. "The positive consequence of [spending] cuts is decreased deficit spending and increased employment levels," she says. "Do women not also benefit from increases in employment? Do they not also benefit from lowering of taxation? Women get benefits just as much as men do--maybe even more so--when interest rates are low and when the economy is doing well. That analysis is based on solid empirical data."

But supporters of gender-based analysis invariably begin with the assumption that more federal spending is necessarily good for women. As the Feminist Alliance--which represents more than 50 women's groups, many of them federally funded--notes in its 10-year budget review, "women need the systems that governments put into place to protect basic economic security, address violence and injustice, and ensure quality and accountability in the provision of public goods, such as child care and health care." It seems GBA is as much about ensuring a more socialistic state, whether or not that's something all women want. No wonder some critics think that's the real "cause" women's groups are trying to push through Ottawa.