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While Trudeau is lauded for gender equality abroad, Canadian women have it worst among richest nations

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[Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was honoured at a Catalyst awards dinner in New York on Wednesday for his leadership in advancing gender equality. PHOTO: @JustinTrudeau]

As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was fêted at a New York City gala this week for his inclusive “game-changing” leadership, Canadian women’s organizations and gender studies experts spoke out over pernicious gender inequality here at home.

Trudeau, who while in New York announced that Canada would be seeking a seat on the UN Security Council in 2021, was honoured Wednesday night by non-profit organization Catalyst for his leadership in advancing gender equality in his cabinet. Earlier that day, Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu announced that Canada would also bid for election to the UN Commission on the Status of Women for the 2017-2022 term.

While Trudeau’s efforts to diversify his cabinet have been widely hailed internationally, actual gender equality in Canada has been significantly eroded over the past 20 years.

Earlier this month Statistics Canada reported that Canadian women working full time earn 73.5 cents for every dollar made by a man, with women earning an average $8,000 less than men for the same job. This wage gap represents twice the global average. According to the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2015, Canada ranked 30th internationally for leveraging female talent, behind the United States, Rwanda, the Philippines, Cuba and South Africa.

“First of all, it’s important to understand that Canada was the most gender equal country in the world between 1995 and 1999, as ranked by the UN,” Kathleen Lahey, professor of law at Queen’s University, told Yahoo Canada News.

“It is now, as a result of two decades of first a Liberal government and second a Conservative government, Canada is now ranked down around No. 30 — 31 — depending on which index you look at. Many much smaller, less developed countries and much poorer countries have much higher numbers of actual economic and social gender equality than Canada does.”

Lahey doesn’t equivocate when asked what she thinks Trudeau’s government needs to do to improve things for women at home.

“The two most urgent things that need to be done, and they need to be done as soon as possible and as well as possible, are to simultaneously prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex in paid work, and to provide full child care expense subsidies for virtually all women in Canada,” she explained.

“The government’s lack of interest in enforcing pay equity laws combined with having the lowest level of child care funding in the whole Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development — the 34 richest countries in the world — has meant that Canadian women face more and deeper economic discrimination than women in any other country at an equivalent level of development or wealth.”

Karen Dempsey, president of the National Council of Women of Canada, agreed that pay equity and child care were issues of pressing concern.

“The equal pay issue is the one that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later and we urge the government to make this a reality,” she told Yahoo Canada News.

“As well, gender analysis of the [federal] budget, for example, would be a major step forward. However, other major issues such as living free from violence, access to education, adequate pensions for seniors — many of whom are women living in poverty — and adequate and accessible quality child care are high on our agenda.”

Fiona Green, associate dean of the faculty of arts and a professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Winnipeg, applauded Trudeau for his approach to gender equity in cabinet postings and for speaking as a self-identified feminist. She expressed concern, however, whether work done to address gender equality would take into account the complexity of other identities, including race, ethnicity, class, ability and sexual orientation.

“The struggle for gender equity is different for different groups of women,” Green said. “For instance, women who are members of the more established European settler population have different concerns and realities to those who are new immigrants/refugees, to those who are transgender and again to those who are indigenous, Métis or Inuit.”

She stressed that in order to improve women’s lives, varied approaches would be needed depending on the individual’s experience with racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, misogyny, class bias or poverty.

However, despite the substantial amount of work to be done, all three experts seemed optimistic about the future.

“Gender equality in the cabinet was a good first step and several women in cabinet have high-profile portfolios so this is very encouraging,” Dempsey said.

“At an IWD [International Women’s Day] breakfast I attended the guest speaker said, ‘Women in power does not necessarily mean empowered women.’ And this is often very true. On the Status of Women Canada website, their theme for IWD 2016 was Women’s Empowerment leads to Equality. What we really need to do is empower women, and the Minister of Status of Women and the PM seem committed to that.”