“It’s about time we broke that glass ceiling,” said MP for University-Rosedale Chrystia Freeland as she accepted her appointment as Canada’s first female Finance Minister.
Freeland is the embodiment of the Trudeau government’s explicitly feminist agenda. Significant systemic change – including gender-based analysis (GBA+) and gender-responsive budgeting (GRB) across whole of government, the creation of a Gender Equality Advisory Council to the G-7 during Canada’s Presidency, appointing Canada’s first gender-balanced Cabinet, promoting Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy, some successes incorporating a gender rights chapter in Progressive Trade Agreements and naming Canada’s first Ambassador for Women, Peace and Security – all illustrate the Prime Minister’s intention to embed equity into governance.
But Freeland’s appointment to Finance garnered much media critique calling it ‘convenient political optics’ and contrasting her background to the Bay Street pedigree of her predecessor. Far from being a political stunt, Freeland’s leadership, including as Minister of Global Affairs her promotion of a feminist foreign policy, should be carried forward to Finance as a prerequisite for shaping a resilient, sustainable and equitable economic COVID-19 recovery.
Because counting women in never mattered more. COVID-19 is a ‘gendered crisis’. The virus is virulent, global and relentless – striking anyone anywhere. But the impact of lockdowns, job losses, school closures, social distancing and physical isolation is disproportionately harsher on women. Disaggregating data reveals the extent of the differential impact of COVID-19 on girls and women, marginalized groups and Indigenous peoples. Building forward requires counting things differently, designing things differently and leading differently.
Decades ago, Dr. Marilyn Waring at age twenty-two became the youngest MP in New Zealand and its first female Finance Minister. Galvanized by how much of women’s work went unnoticed, unpaid and unaccounted in GDP, she shaped ‘feminist economics’ and wrote several seminal books including ‘If Women Counted’ urging nations and international institutions to change their calculus to take account of the trillions of dollars globally women contribute in the unpaid informal and care economy – estimated to exceed $10 trillion annually.
Counting differently, and ‘seeing’ the crisis differently is for some a matter of life and death. In Canada COVID-19 has seen a tripling of violence against girls and women trapped in isolation. For others, the invisible workload is exploding disproportionately for women as the household becomes the classroom, romper room and business zoom-room. Women are also heavily involved at the front lines of the pandemic response, assuming higher personal risk delivering essential services in health care in hospitals and seniors care in long-term residences.
COVID-19 also reveals the skilled leadership of women. Canada’s National Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam and several provincial women public health leaders have come to the forefront. By the third month of the global pandemic, an article appeared in the Harvard Business Review posing the question: “Will COVID change Public Perception of Women’s Leadership?” By August, five months into the pandemic, Liverpool University released a report analyzing 194 countries comparing COVID outcomes in 19 women-led nations. It concluded that significant and systematic differences were apparent. The explanation of improved outcomes was attributed, in part, to women’s risk behavior and their leadership style.
In our three-years of research conducting interviews with 95 women trailblazers in Canadian politics across party lines and at all levels including First Nation governance, we found responses consistent with the Liverpool observation on women’s leadership style. Conversations spanning one Prime Minister, two Deputy Prime Ministers, multiple Mayors, Ministers and 19 women who ran to lead their political parties highlighted similar leadership characteristics including consultation, consensus-building, clear communication styles and swift action.
Counting things differently and leading differently results in designing things differently. Roadmaps for COVID recovery applying the gender lens have been recently released. ‘Canada’s First Feminist Economic Recovery Plan for COVID’, published by the YWCA in collaboration with the University of Toronto Rotman School sets out 8 pillars to guide COVID -19 recovery. The UN Policy Brief ‘The Impact of COVID-19 on Women’ provides three pillars underpinning a just recovery. Both studies provide policy makers indispensable principles in designing a gender-responsive COVID-19 recovery strategy.
These fundamental underpinnings to our country’s recovery strategy are matched in urgency by the principles presented in the International Institute for Sustainable Development’s plan to meet Canada’s 2050 climate commitments in the design of Canada’s COVID recovery. What better time could there be than a crisis to change course?
Far from seeing Freeland’s appointment as political savvy, we see it carries with it the promise to anchor Canada’s economic recovery in the realities which girls, women, marginalized and Indigenous peoples are experiencing during COVID-19.
The possibility to count, lead and design things differently is wide open.
Chrystia Freeland is a skilled hand at the helm.
The opportunity and obligation are hers to seize.
Dr. Betsy McGregor 2, Author, Women on the Ballot
Edward Tian 2, Journalism Student, Princeton University