international Women's Day Speech - March 8

Jane's speech at the City of Ottawa Women's Day Breakfast


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Bonjour. Je remercie le maire Watson de m’avoir gentiment invitée à m’adresser à vous à l’occasion de cette Journée internationale de la femme.

Tout d’abord, je mentionne que nous sommes réunis sur le territoire traditionnel non cédé du peuple algonquin.

Je souhaite remercier mes collègues et d’autres invités…

The International Women’s Day 2019 campaign theme is #BalanceForBetter. It is a call-to-action for driving gender balance and gender equity across the world.

My comments today will be about the theme of balance.

There are many ways the theme could be interpreted. The International Women’s Day website describes it this way: “Balance is not a women’s issue, it’s a business issue. The race is on for the gender-balanced boardroom, a gender-balanced government, gender-balanced media coverage, a gender-balance of employees, more gender-balance in wealth, gender-balanced sports coverage and more…

“Gender balance is essential for economies and communities to thrive.”

That’s a strong endorsement for gender balance. But we have a long way to go to achieve balance in all those places. Far from achieving gender balance and gender equity in Canada, we know that gender-based discrimination is widespread. So we must ask: how can we move from discrimination to balance to true gender equity?

One’s gender has been and continues to be one of the most troubling drivers of disadvantage and discrimination. While gender-based discrimination remains widely prevalent in Canada, I saw it even more severely when I lived for decade in Niger Republic, West Africa. Still today, in Niger, three quarters of women are married before age 18. Fewer than 1 in 5 married women has access to contraception. They have the highest fertility rates in the world with the average woman having 7 children. A skilled birth attendant attends fewer than half of all births – so they have some of the worst maternal mortality rates in the world. These statistics are about more than women’s health – they have an impact on education, employment and many other opportunities.

In rural Niger, gender-based discrimination is real and it can be deadly.

Likewise in Canada, we know that not only women, but also those who are trans-gender or non-binary are more likely to face violence as a result of their gender identity.

Gender-based discrimination must never be minimized.

But let us also clarify that the journey from discrimination to balance has to be about more than gender – it has to be gender plus.

As you know, fair and fulsome feminism recognizes that there are many additional forms of systemic discrimination.

I try to be careful to take a broad view of gender balance based on the recognition of my own privilege. In my life, any disadvantages to the pursuit of my opportunities, career or life goals based on my gender have been far exceeded by a large number of unearned advantages. I grew up white and able-bodied, in a home free of violence, in a country with publicly funded primary and secondary education. We were not affluent but I did not go hungry. All these unearned advantages paved the way for me to have a voice and a seat at the table.

Or, dans notre pays et ailleurs dans le monde, d’innombrables personnes ne peuvent pas poursuivre leurs rêves – certes, souvent à cause de leur sexe, mais aussi à cause de leur race, de leur religion, de leur situation économique, de leur orientation sexuelle, de leur handicap et de toutes sortes d’autres formes de discrimination systémiques qui ont toujours existé.

So, when we say #balanceforbetter, let’s make sure we’re thinking well beyond gender balance. Our workplaces and organizations will be better and more successful if we pursue balance in all its forms.

As I was preparing for today’s talk, thinking about balance and how we can ensure that all voices are heard, I was reminded of a marvellous book by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich – a professor of history at Harvard University. Perhaps you’ve read the book. Its provocative title is “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”

The message of Ulrich’s book has stuck with me for all the years since I first read it. It’s a look at how women have shaped history, in unexpected ways. The book is a celebration of women tipping the balance of history. It celebrates the way that people from all walks of life work to have their perspective heard and she grieves the fact that some voices are still too quiet.

Ulrich says: “I applaud the fact that so many people – students, teachers, quilters, nurses, newspaper columnists, old ladies in nursing homes, and mayors of western towns – think they have the right to make history… History is a conversation and sometimes a shouting match between present and past, though the voices we most want to hear are barely audible.

The voices we most want to hear are barely audible.

Ne l’oublions pas lorsqu’il est question d’équilibre. Oui, nous cherchons à atteindre un équilibre entre les hommes et les femmes, mais n’oublions jamais tous les autres qui n’ont aucune voix et pour quels motifs ils sont laissés pour compte. Quelles autres voix devons nous entendre ? Cet équilibre transcende les sexes.

Going forward in the speech you should assume that when I refer to balance, it implies gender balance – but in the manner that is now popularly called intersectionality. Let’s take it as a given that we’re thinking of every other metric by which organizations should seek balance.

But now to the key point – and that is this: balance has to be about more than numbers. Balance has a purpose.

Gender balance by headcount may be an important and powerful first step. When our prime minister made the decision to have a gender balanced cabinet – and acted on it – I believe he transformed our country, perhaps the world – in a positive way. He set a bar by which future governments will be measured.

But when we seek balance – whether it is in a government cabinet, a corporate board, a workplace or elsewhere – it’s for a purpose. It’s because we know that the work of that organization will get a broader range of input; look at issues from more than one worldview; be better able to predict the impact of decisions that are made.

It’s the opportunity to demonstrate that kind of balance that sets Canada apart and offers us competitive advantages for social and economic success.

When I think about Canada’s opportunity to demonstrate why balance is better, I’m reminded of one of my favourite passages from a document that has had a huge impact on me in the past three years. The document is the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples – affectionately known as RCAP.  It’s a brilliant 4000-page report written in 1996. The opening sentence of the highlights of that report read:

“Canada is a test case for a grand notion – the notion that dissimilar peoples can share lands, resources, power and dreams while respecting and sustaining their differences. The story of Canada is the story of many such peoples, trying and failing and trying again, to live together in peace and harmony.”

That’s the aspirational goal of gender balance. That’s why diversity is our strength – because every voice matters. That is the grand notion for which Canada is a test case.

We are part of a grand imperfect effort to demonstrate that dissimilar people can come together and share – and aim to do so while respecting and sustaining our differences.

It’s messy. It’s hard. When we break down silos, bring people with different worldviews to the same table, try to give everyone a voice, try to reconcile those views to achieve common objectives and mutual benefit, there are bound to be challenges – sometimes even culture clashes.

But what has Canada always done, according to RCAP? We’ve tried – and we’ve failed – but here we are trying again – to live and work together in peace and harmony.

That’s the whole point of balance. It’s not so that there will be a great team photo in the corporate report and all the boxes of representation can be sanctimoniously checked off. Gender balance is not about tokenism.

We need balance because it results in better outcomes. We need to hear a broad range of voices because each one has something to contribute.

And here’s where I’ll talk about more specifically about what women bring to the balance equation.

There was a fascinating opinion piece in the Globe and Mail on Tuesday of this week by Elizabeth Renzetti – in which she cites evidence that when women get a seat at the table, they are there with outcomes in mind.

She cites research about women and politics specifically – quoting Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics, who said: “Women run to do something and men run to be somebody.”

Certains réprouveront cette affirmation, considérant qu’il s’agit d’une généralisation – mais elle étaye ce qu’elle avance et, de toute évidence, elle ne dit pas que tous les hommes n’ont qu’une seule motivation. Mais son hypothèse est intéressante, à savoir que l’équilibre entre les hommes et les femmes peut provoquer de tels bouleversements dans les milieux des affaires, de la politique, universitaire ou dans tout autre secteur notamment parce que les femmes (en général) ont des motivations différentes de celles des hommes. C’est ce qui fait que nous exerçons notre travail différemment, que nous avons une vision différente et que nous prenons des décisions différentes.

Let me get a little more personal now about motivation. People sometimes ask how I found my way to a seat at the cabinet table.

But the more important question is WHY I got here.

When I have sought a seat at any table – whether it’s a boardroom table, a negotiating table, a medical advisory table or a cabinet table – here’s my hope about what has driven me. I’m not at the table because it comes with a generous salary; I’m not there for the title; and I’m not there to build my resume or expand my Rolodex.

J’y suis parce que je veux faire tout ce que je peux pour améliorer la vie d’autrui.

Je veux mettre à profit mes idées, mon cœur et mon énergie à de bonnes fins.

I want to challenge the status quo if the status quo is getting in the way of helping people.

I want to ask tough questions.

I want to speak up on behalf of the people I’ve met who will never have the privilege of being around such a table:

  • The women who work in the dry millet fields of Niger
  • Young people in remote First Nations communities who have dreams and aspirations still unfulfilled
  • The extraordinary people I’ve met in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside – one of the most welcoming neighbourhoods in the country

I try to listen well to people I meet so that when I’m at the table I can imagine what they might want me to say – envision how the decisions we’re making might affect them – imperfectly try to make their voices more audible.

L’équilibre entre les hommes et les femmes a sa raison d’être. Lorsque les organes décisionnels sont composés d’un ensemble équilibré de gens, chacun participe aux discussions en tenant compte d’une multitude de points de vue et d’idées sur la façon de définir les problèmes et de trouver des solutions.

That kind of balance is what we need to solve the biggest challenges we face as a nation, as a society: the growing gaps between rich and poor; the looming threat of climate change; the historic failure to recognize and affirm the rights of Indigenous peoples. We can only take on these entrenched threats if everyone has a voice.

Whatever problems we face together, gender balance is an essential part of the solution.

I’ll close in recalling Ulrich’s quote: “The voices we most want to hear are barely audible…”

I’d like to change the words slightly – they are actually the voices we most need to hear. So many women still can’t make their voices heard – but also, First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples need their voices heard – people living in poverty need their voices heard – people who use drugs need their voices heard – people living with disability need their voices heard… So many Canadian voices are still largely inaudible. We need to balance better.

So I encourage you to go out today and build balance in your workplace, your club, or your volunteer association. Our country will be better for it.


MP Jane Philpott speaking on International Women's Day in Ottawa
MP Jane Philpott speaking on International Women's Day in Ottawa