When I was a girl, my mother always told me, “You can do anything you set your mind to.” Although that’s not quite true — I could never become a professional dancer, for example — it certainly set me on a path to pursue my interests. Back in the ’60’s and ’70’s, when it maybe wasn’t so common, I was a child who was over-scheduled by my own choice. I begged for piano lessons starting at age 5, was in choir, did gymnastics and swimming, joined an amateur musical-theatre group, took ballet and tap dancing, and the list goes on. I was the baby of the family and came along at a time when my parents could afford to nurture my dreams. What if I had not been born into a family where such things were possible and encouraged? How different might my life have been?
My mother herself was encouraged by her mother (a schoolteacher) to make the most of her talents, winning a place at a grammar school and doing well there. During the Second World War, she worked as a telephone operator, often transmitting military messages. She met my father at a dance and, soon enough, married him. She gave birth to my brother virtually alone in a hospital in wartime England, doing what needed to be done. Moving to my father’s small home town in Quebec, she adapted to her surroundings, including learning French over the years. When her children were a little older, she wanted to work, and became involved in a program for special needs children. My father discouraged her from this as he wanted to be the “provider”, supporting the family, as was the common way of things. My mother contented herself with being involved in our schools and at one point also volunteered her time teaching English to immigrants.
In my immediate family, though, the sisters and the brother were all treated equally and afforded any available opportunities if we so desired. My parents supported my limited attempts to pursue singing and acting, although they did encourage me to have a “career to fall back on”. Really, I did not have the drive or the industry knowledge to begin to push myself forward in “show business” and so I went to university. What if I had not been lucky enough to have had that opportunity?
In the last year of my degree, there was on-campus recruitment in my chosen field, during which I was told out of the blue by a partner in the firm, “Do you plan to have children? Because if you do, this is not the career for you.” Can you imagine anyone saying that nowadays? Do people still ask that question of young women?… although, even in the ’80’s, it was certainly not a legally permitted recruiting question in Canada.
I did actually join that firm in spite of that particular partner, and I told the powers that be that they might want to reconsider their choice of on-campus recruiters. Another partner called me sweetheart one time, as he was known to do with the young women. And I remember one of the partners bypassing the young men in the open work area and giving the young women a cutting-and-pasting project because we would be so good at that! Imagine! To those of us who entered the firm at the same time, though, all of us, whether women or men, were equal — young professionals (yuppies) with the same or equivalent degrees, all subjected to the same rigourous standards. Maybe the world was changing.
In my firm in the ’80’s, women were required to wear skirted business suits and pumps. Any woman who came into the office in pants would be sent home to change. No joke. Maybe that’s why I no longer wear skirts or dresses, pretty much ever. The few women I worked for in the firm were people who had by necessity devoted their entire lives to their careers. I remember, though, that there was one female partner who was a ground-breaker, having three children and somehow managing to work with the firm to balance her work life and her home life.
Nowadays, it is much more common for such workplaces to accommodate family needs. While I no longer work in that part of my profession, my organization is accommodating to family and other personal needs, not only for women but also for men. We try to be flexible, understanding that people in general need “wellness” days and flexible time, and that young children need their parents to be there when they are sick, drop them off in the morning, and/or pick them up in the evening. I suspect, though, that not all workplaces are so understanding.
I now work in the non-profit world, in an organization where the top two tiers of management are more than 50% women. Given that nearly 80% of our employees are women, though, that percentage could certainly be higher. Don’t get me wrong… I don’t believe that there is discrimination in our hiring. I do believe that we as a society are still not at a point where a majority of women generally have the same advantages (or even encouragement) as men, to obtain the education and experience to qualify them for those top positions. And admittedly, it is very hard to balance work life and home life when you are in an upper-management position, given the demands of the job. Many women still do the bulk of the child-rearing, even while holding down a demanding position. I do see that changing, though, with some of the younger men who work in my organization.
In my organization, we have equal pay within a position group, regardless of whether the incumbent is a woman or a man. However, we continually lose people to other sectors (i.e. not non-profit) where the salaries are higher. So, even though salaries are equitable across our organization and across our sector, the fact that 75% of people who work in Canadian non-profits are women means that many women’s salaries are still lower than men’s in our society. Despite pay equity efforts in various jurisdictions over the years, we still do not have equal pay for work of equal value across all sectors. And in the non-profit sector, that is very difficult when we are often reliant on government funding, which does not always keep pace with the corporate world.
The theme of International Women’s Day 2018 is “Press for Progress”. There has certainly been progress in my lifetime. However, I am aware of the advantages I have had and I want to look for opportunities for change, to help lay the groundwork for other girls and women to achieve their goals. I want to continue to press for progress.