The United Nations is observing International Women’s Day this Friday. This year also marks the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, a global policy framework introduced to advance gender equality around the world.
A quarter-century later, we must acknowledge many achievements when it comes to specific goals of the Beijing Platform, particularly on poverty reduction and armed conflict. Other areas, such as economy, power and decision-making, are nowhere near where they should be – even in industrialized nations.
In British Columbia, there are aspects of our daily lives in which women continue to be scrutinized, excluded and harassed on account of their gender.
Research Co. asked a representative sample of women in British Columbia about their experiences over the course of their lives in the province. Just over a third of women (36%) say they have never endured discrimination here. This leaves more than one in five (21%) who describe the discrimination they have faced as “significant” or “moderate,” and 37% who have experienced “a small amount” of discrimination.
In Metro Vancouver, 24% of women have experienced a “significant” or “moderate” amount of discrimination. And while half of women in British Columbia aged 55 and over (50%) have never been discriminated against, the proportion falls to 34% among those aged 35 to 54 and 21% among those aged 18 to 34.
Over the past three decades, discussions about workplace etiquette have been more frequent. This might suggest that certain regrettable incidents – such as verbal and sexual harassment – would be more prevalent with older residents who did not benefit from today’s ostensibly more open-minded society. Unfortunately, this is not the case. In British Columbia, the younger a woman is, the more likely she is to have experienced some form of gender discrimination.
As the Beijing Platform began to be implemented, North American workplaces went through a transformation. Stories such as the conduct of a sitting U.S. president with an intern led to more analysis of power structures in corporate life. Human resources departments became busier, but at times devoted more attention to avoiding lawsuits and protecting revenue-producing executives than to ensuring a fair hearing for women who felt wronged.
The Canadian media, for its part, has devoted some ink and time to recounting stories of abusive behaviour towards women, from drunken executives at restaurants, to the class-action lawsuit launched against the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), to the disgusting and degrading decals making the rounds in Alberta. The list of people who have been linked to some form of mistreatment includes movie producer Harvey Weinstein, tenor Plácido Domingo and fashion executive Peter Nygård.
Our survey asked women in British Columbia if they have endured any one of 12 separate specific kinds of discrimination. While a majority of women aged 55 and over claim not to have experienced any of them (56%), the proportion drops to 34% among those aged 35 to 54 and just 29% among those aged 18 to 34.
More than one in four women in the province (28%) have endured verbal harassment, such as catcalls, at one point of their lives. A similar proportion (24%) were victims of sexual harassment, and 6% report having experienced physical harassment.
Slightly fewer women in British Columbia were the subject of sexist jokes (20%), were treated unfairly in the workplace (also 20%) and were mocked or ridiculed because of their gender (17%). More than one in 10 (12%) felt they lost a potential employment opportunity only because they are women.
The survey provides a sombre reminder of how much needs to be done to eradicate gender discrimination in British Columbia. It would have been easy to assume that women aged 18 to 34, whose professional careers have occurred entirely in the 21st century, would benefit from more sensitive workplaces. In reality, some employers still do not fully understand how to speak and act.
When majorities of women in the younger generations in our province recall gender discrimination, it is clear that the problem is bigger than most would like to believe. It is difficult to speak out for a professional of any gender when their boss is abusive, nasty, gruff, uncivil and scurrilous, especially when it could lead to more isolation or even dismissal. The high-profile cases that have dominated the media landscape all started with a whistleblower with a story to tell and a journalist willing to challenge long-standing perceptions.
Their names may not be Weinstein, Domingo or Nygård, but there are people responsible for gender discrimination and harassment in our province’s boardrooms and corner offices, the numbers suggest. Their behaviour must be stopped.•
Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.
Results are based on online studies conducted December 12–16, 2019, and January 21–24, 2020, among 800 adult women in British Columbia. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age and region in British Columbia. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.