International Women's Day: A look at the women who helped shape Canada's pandemic response

Elianna Lev
·5 min read
Composite image shows (L to R) Dr. Theresa Tam, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Chrystia Freeland and Dr. Bonnie Henry. (The Canadian Press/Yahoo Canada)
Composite image shows (L to R) Dr. Theresa Tam, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Chrystia Freeland and Dr. Bonnie Henry. (The Canadian Press/Yahoo Canada)

For nearly a year, Canadians have relied on information and guidance from top public health officials to help them make sense of these unprecedented times. Many of the key figures in these roles are women who have helped build trust and stability through the chaos of a global pandemic. Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Theresa Tam, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland, B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw are just some of the women who have come into high profile leadership roles that have helped shape how we navigate a crisis that is constantly changing shape.

While these figures have undoubtedly inspired how young women view their future careers in politics and health, they’ve also received a fair amount of toxic pushback, based solely on their gender.

Mary Rita Holland is a Kingston city councillor and PhD candidate with a focus on public health at Queen’s University. She says most of the students she teaches in health studies are female and female-identifying, and that having strong leadership role models has made an impact on them.

“Seeing leaders in those positions is so important to these students,” she tells Yahoo Canada. “Because they already have an interest in health, they’re learning more now how to bring their abilities into the community and how to be effective leaders, because communication is so important in the area of public health.”

While those working in politics have to deal with different views and perspectives, the role of public health officials is apolitical. That’s why it requires public trust, says Holland.

“I think that the women we’ve seen take on that role have an approach that’s been very much about educating, about doing what’s best for the population,” she says “It’s a form of leadership that is not saying ‘I have all the right ideas and everyone has to listen to me.’ It's a very understanding and empathetic approach to the challenges that people are facing.”

Holland stresses that you don’t get to be at that level of leadership if you’re not an excellent communicator and if you’re not able to develop public trust.

“I think what’s most remarkable is that we’re getting to see those skills in action, because often we don’t,” she says. “Public health is so overlooked when we’re not in a period of crisis.”

Andrea Gunraj is the vice president of public engagement with the Canadian Women’s Foundation. She says women tend to be underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, often as a result of barriers they face. By seeing women in such high profile positions, it helps break down those barriers.

“There’s a lot of positive pieces around seeing yourself represented and feeling like you can do it,” she says.

This sentiment is evident in a KPMG Women’s Leadership study, where 86 per cent of women reported that when they see more women in leadership, they are encouraged they can get there themselves.

Gender-based criticisms still an issue

While women in high profile leadership roles are encouraging the future generations, there is a harsh reality that can’t be ignored - sexism and misogyny.

Holland is aware the current female public health officers face a lot of chauvinistic criticism that’s highly problematic.

“A politician is so used to that and expects that, but someone who’s in an apolitical role who’s bearing the brunt of that, that’s the other side of this, the misogyny that’s involved,” she says. “People aren’t just getting angry and lashing out at public health officials, they’re doing it in a particular way towards women in those roles.”

The “lashing out” includes gender-based threats of violence and sexual violence, mainly on social media. Gunraj says it creates a dynamic that makes women feel like they’re in unsafe spaces in public space.

“When they’re doing their roles and when they’re on social media they experience many forms of unsafety and many forms of targeting that a lot of women in lots of different realms also experience but it’s quite visible when it’s someone in a leadership role,” she says.

Women in leadership roles who are racialized, disabled or a newcomer often feel like they have to fight stereotypes and assumptions about themselves, at the same time as doing their job.

“It’s kind of a double and triple burden,” says Gunraj. “They feel like they have to carry an emotional tax while in their roles...they’re carrying these burdens while in their roles and might feel like they have to push through stereotypes to get respect. We have to remember that while we build up inclusive leadership, we also have to break down stereotypes.”

While Canadians are focused on the chief medical officers playing a powerful and visible role in helping guide a nation through a pandemic, Gunraj says it’s important to also focus on those women-led areas that aren't as visible and celebrated.

“Women are still leading in areas like frontline healthcare, community-based responses to the pandemic area in the service industry...women are there making decisions on how to adapt and lead, how to support people and keep them healthy.”