Persistence of female inadequacy myths

This excerpt was taken from the 4th Annual LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture delivered by the Right Honourable Chief Justice of Canada Beverley McLachlin. The lecture is a project of the Dominion Institute in collaboration with the Governor General’s spouse His Excellency John Ralston Saul.

For much of Canadian history, women have been relegated to an inferior status in society.

Women were fit for domestic roles, fit to serve as secretaries and nurses and other kinds of assistants. They clearly were not, however, up to the big jobs. This exclusionist thinking was buttressed by ingrained attitudes that the primary place of women was in the home with the children. Women who wanted to serve in law, medicine or politics could attempt to do so, but they faced an uphill struggle against the prevailing attitudes of the day and seldom got to the top. The difficulties they faced led to statements like that of French journalist Francoise Giroud, “Women’s problems will be solved when a mediocre woman holds a major job.”

It is now widely accepted that there is no justification for sweeping negative generalizations about the ability and temperament of women.

And it is accepted — by many if not all — that cooking and child care are not exclusively feminine gifts; men too can enjoy and excel in these activities. Why then did we persist so long in our belief that women were fundamentally unsuited for anything but working in the home and assisting men in grander pursuits?

The answer brings us back to the dynamic of difference. Instead of evaluating the differences between men and women honestly and with an open mind, people magnified those differences and extrapolated them into conclusions which bore no relation to the actual abilities of women and paid no respect to their right to choose their path in life.

In a word, stereotype transmuted into popular, hence unassailable, wisdom. Myth supplanting reality shut women out.

Why did the myth of female inadequacy persist so long? Why indeed does it still exert a tenacious power over our deepest attitudes and actions? Why can we not simply acknowledge, as we increasingly do with ethnic minorities, that the biological differences between men and women should not limit their place in society? Why, in short, can we not, where women are concerned, move from an exclusionary mentality to an inclusionary mentality? The answers are complex.

Social and religious institutions may buttress an exclusionary mentality, as may the very structures of our institutions.

For example, many Canadian offices and workplaces continue to be organized on the Edwardian model of a century past. The family breadwinner (presumptively Papa) is expected to be available for work and travel at any time. This is made possible because the family homemaker (presumptively Mama) devotes her exclusive efforts to the home and family.

This model no longer fits the reality of Canadian families, where increasingly both parents must work outside the home to earn the necessary income and both parents are involved with domestic and child-rearing tasks. We are beginning to explore ways to bring our workplace organization into sync with the reality of our lives — day-care centres on the jobsite, child-care programs, flex time and working from home are among the options being explored.

So long as we organize our workplaces on Edwardian lines, women will find themselves at best stressed and at worst falling back into the default role of sole domestic care-giver.

Workplace organization is important. But so is workplace culture. “Why,” I recently heard the senior partner of a national firm lament, “do so many women leave the firm after only a few years? They are among the brightest of our young recruits. We invest in them. We give them flex time. Yet they leave in greater numbers than their male counterparts, usually for another job that entails just as much work. We know where they go but we don’t know why.”

It would be presumptuous of me to venture an answer to this honest and important query. Yet I am struck by an observation I recently heard — to be happy in a workplace one needs friends and at least one mentor. Here we encounter another aspect of finding a place for minorities in majoritarian institutions, be the minority a racial minority, a religious minority or a gender minority. The minority person may find the workplace culture hostile or at very least, less than comfortable. Sexual harassment was once common and tolerated in the workplace culture; it is now legally and socially taboo. Yet in more subtle ways, the minority employee may come to feel devalued.

People need support. People need mentors. Members of workplace minorities may find less support and fewer mentors than members of the workplace majority. We should not be surprised if they then seek more supportive environments. The lesson is simple. Prohibition is not the only way to exclude. The “other” in our midst may be excluded or marginalized in much more subtle ways.

If Canada has not won the war against the exclusion of women, we have fought the first important battles. We have rejected the exclusionary politics that once denied women access to the levers of influence, power and full societal participation. We lead other nations in the opportunities we open to women. We have more senior female judges, more female university professors, more practicing physicians than many western countries. Personally, I believe that in my own profession, the law, it is easier for a woman to succeed in Canada than almost anywhere else. Yet despite these achievements — and they are not inconsiderable — we still have terrain to take. Women’s equality issues remain very much alive. Few women occupy the highest seats of political office and commerce. Statistics Canada tells us we have not achieved pay equity. And violence against women is a persistent problem.

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