Women and men experience urban life differently. Women are twice as likely to hold part-time jobs; three times as likely to work for the minimum wage and eight times as likely to be victims of domestic violence. They earn 76 cents for every dollar men earn. They are under-represented in all levels of government.
But the gender gap varies widely across the country. To find out what makes a city female-friendly, Kate McInturff, a senior researcher at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives created a gender equality index and applied it to Canada’s 20 largest urban centres. It took into account income, education, health-care, safety and political influence. She summarized her findings in a just-released study entitled The Best and Worst Place to be a Woman in Canada.
Quebec City topped the rankings. Edmonton placed last.
Even for women’s activists, her 58-page analysis contained a few surprises:
• The nation’s biggest cities — Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver — fell in the middle of the pack despite having specialized services for women, extensive non-profit networks and leading roles in the women’s movement.
• St, John’s Nfld ranked third, well ahead of affluent cities such as Calgary (17th) and Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge (16th).
• Cities in which women held the majority of city council seats — Waterloo and Victoria were the two prime examples — didn’t appear to confer any benefit on their female residents.
• The pay gap between women and men in senior management was smallest in Regina, not normally seen as a mecca of gender parity.
Statistics don’t tell the whole story, as McInturff acknowledges. “There is simply not enough data collected at the municipal level to make comparisons between women with and without disabilities or between aboriginal, immigrant and racialized women.”
Moreover, averages can obscure as much as they reveal. Does combining a city’s good and bad neighbourhoods into an arithmetical mean really help women make smart choices? Is an economically polarized city such Toronto really a better place for women to live than a city with a more equitable income distribution such as Halifax?
To compound these numerical constraints, some of the indicators McInturff used were questionable. She reported for instance that women in Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo experienced the highest levels of stress. Yet they were relatively well off, highly educated, healthy and free of big-city pressures such as gridlock and lack of housing. Do subjective assessments like this belong in an index of gender equality? In a second eyebrow-raising case, she ranked Toronto 18th out of 20 cities on women’s health services although it had the most sexual and reproductive health clinics in the country. She awarded St. John’s first place because it had the most clinics per capita. Would a woman really rather live in a municipality with three clinics than a city with 16?
Despite its shortcomings, McInturff’s study offers fresh insight. It draws a clear link between policy actions and improvements in women’s lives. And it refutes some popular — but simplistic — assumptions.
Education, long touted as the greater equalizer, is not enough to close the gender gap. If it were, women wouldn’t be earning 28 per cent less than men.
Electing more women, the great hope of feminists, is not a sure formula for gender equality. If it were, cities with female mayors and councillors would be higher in the standings.
Market forces, championed by conservative politicians, will not right the imbalance. If they did, Edmonton, which has the highest employment earnings in the survey, would be at the top — not the bottom — of the index.
Two measures do appear to make a significant difference. The first is the availability and price of child care. That explains why all three Quebec cities in the index had strong scores. The second is the implementation of pay equity legislation. Cities which required equal-pay-for-work-of-equal-value among municipal workers outscored those with no such policies.
Women didn’t need a study to tell them there is no simple solution to the gender gap. They have been working on multiple fronts for decades.
What McInturff gave them was a guide to which tools work best and proof that local creativity matters.