What Do Women Want? CWP tries to answer at Committee

05-9-14

IWD 2013 PosterIn movies and television men always seem to be asking the question: what do women want? The Status of Women’s Committee also attempts to tackle that question, looking at issues that affect women, such as economic leadership and the prosperity of Canadian women.

Well, we have an idea for solving the question of what women want – ASK THEM!

On Monday May 5th two CWP board members, Laura Cattari and Brenda Thompson appeared at the Status of Women Committee on the issue of economic prosperity. They presented alongside the founder of Start Up Canada, an organization focused on entrepreneurship. Laura and Brenda spoke about their personal experiences with poverty as a woman with a disability and a single mother (see below).

CWP was surprised that the Committee directed very few questions towards our board members following their testimony. This meant that they we’re not able to give the Committee much detail beyond their 10 minute presentation. In fact, amidst approximately one hour and ten minutes of questions, our board members were asked less than five questions. Instead, the majority of questions were directed towards the young woman from Start Up Canada and focused primarily on women working. Barriers to women working barely entered the conversation.

This makes us wonder: if the Status of Women Committee has asked the question “what do women want?” why is it that when talking about leadership and economic prosperity, they’re not willing to hear the answer? Prosperity and poverty are two ends of the same spectrum. You can’t ignore what holds women back if you want to consider how women’s role in the economy. It is like wearing blinders and pretending the issue is not there.

A comprehensive conversation about women in the economy must include women with various experiences, especially the most vulnerable who struggle to find opportunity and face systemic barriers.

The testimony of our board members is below:

Laura Cattari, Board of Directors, Secretary

Madam Chair and committee members, thank you for the opportunity to address this committee.

My name is Laura Cattari and I am Secretary for the Board of Directors of Canada Without Poverty. Canada Without Poverty is a national non-partisan charity with more than a 40 year history of working to eradicate poverty. Of note is that all board members have lived experiences of poverty that assist in guiding our work.

Economic leadership and prosperity is an important conversation that must address what holds women back and looks to the future of all women. From personal experience and recent research I can say with confidence that women in poverty are not able to fully participate in economic life, nor are they able to seize opportunities available to individuals in higher income brackets. The barriers women face not only have a profoundly negative effect on themselves as well as their children, but also the broader economy where our contributions are either stifled or not counted resulting in outright exclusion.

My own story is a case in point. At the peak of my career, I built digital cable and internet networks, led research and development teams and wrote industry white papers. I was a consultant to major cable corporations; in short, an industry leader. I was also the only female amongst my peers.

In January 2003, I was declared officially disabled with stress-related illnesses. Could the outright discrimination I fought over the years and other challenges of a male-dominated environment have triggered this? Or perhaps it was the accumulation of stress, from persistent childhood abuse including sexual, that 20% of Canadian women face before the age of 18. The contributing factors to stress-related illnesses are well documented and gender does play a significant part.

With disability came poverty and economic exclusion. Yet despite my apparent dis-ability, I am still articulate, intelligent and capable of participating in my community and the economy, garnering a Woman of Distinction nomination from my peers. What holds me back from escaping poverty and moving forward is not my illness but a dis-ability of individuals and government systems. These are barriers that many women in my position face; 75% of women with disabilities are unemployed in Canada.

In order to achieve success my needs are simple: adequate amounts of nutritious foods and affordable housing in safe neighborhoods that aren’t trolled by those who prey on vulnerable women. I also need the societal violence against women, which shapes language, attitudes and behaviours, to stop psychologically affecting self-esteem and self-respect; so I no longer hear young women at leadership summits tell me “I do not feel I am enough”.

In terms of employment I require a system that rewards providers for supporting me to be the leader I am, and not a part-time worker at minimum wage; which women currently fill the vast majority of positions.

I applaud current programs, such as the Opportunities Fund for People with Disabilities, which supports part-time post-secondary education to accommodate my illness. However, it does not support part-time employment. This fails to take into account part-time opportunities which also have the potential to raise me out of poverty and my inability to state a goal of full-time employment excludes me from that program.

I am aware of various federal government programs to support vulnerable people but not all are necessarily within reach. Inaccessible post-secondary education leaves me uncompetitive in a new field of employment. I am essentially left out of the economy and cannot reach prosperity, even though I am willing and able to participate on a meaningful level.

In conclusion, there are two specific recommendations I wish to make:

  1. Adjust the qualification restrictions on the Opportunities Fund for People with Disabilities, and other post-secondary programs so that those unable to work full-time can apply.
  2. Establish a portable federal rent supplement program to ensure access to adequate, safe housing as well as mobility.

With these recommendations as the foundation of a national mandate for this Committee, the least privileged of women will be included, strengthening the potential, prosperity and equality of all women in Canada.

Thank you.

Brenda Thompson, Board of Directors, Vice President

Good afternoon Madam Chair, committee members and all others present.

I would like to thank you for the opportunity to share my experiences and to address this committee and thank you for continuing to work on the very important topic of women’s leadership and prosperity in Canada.

I come to you with my credentials as the VP of Canada Without Poverty, as a non-profit worker in a women’s resource center, as a former low income single mother and author of The Single Mothers’ Survival Guide for Nova Scotia.

I grew up in a rural family that was very poor.  My parents married young and worked hard to move us into the middle class in Nova Scotia.  At the age of 20, I had a high school education and was a waitress when I became pregnant with my first daughter.  Her father left me in my 3rd month of pregnancy and never participated in our lives again.  He also did not pay child support and was not made to pay child support.

When my first daughter was 9 months old, I attended community college and got a 2 year diploma in hospitality management.  My student loan for these two years went to pay my child care.  After graduating second in a class of 55, the only job I could find was as a waitress…again.

After two years of working as a waitress with my family providing child care two things happened:  I was offered a subsidized child care spot in a local daycare and I was offered a home in a CMHA funded Housing Co-Op.  I decided to take the leap and get a better education to try and get a better job.  I took a B.A in Women’s Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University, an M.A. in Sociology at Acadia University graduating with a 4.3 GPA with my M.A. in Sociology.

These two programs, subsidized day care and social affordable housing, helped me immensely to achieve my goals of a better education.  Without the child care of $35 a month, I could not have afforded to attend university.  It also gave my working family members a much needed break after years of filling the gap of child care.

The subsidized social housing co-op gave me an affordable, warm, safe home for my daughter and myself.  In addition, it gave me a sense of community with our co-op meetings and social events such as picnics.  The people in the co-op were just like me; working hard to make a better place for our families and our communities.

I graduated and went on to get decent paying employment in my field.  Many years later, I found myself unemployed and a low income single mother living in rural Nova Scotia.  But this time I had an education and child support.  In rural Nova Scotia, however, it is very difficult to find a decently paid job in any field.  I had to stay in the area for parental access and custody issues with the other parent which left me in a difficult position.  I took whatever jobs I could find that I could do from my home while taking care of my child.  For more than a year, my second daughter and myself lived on $800 a month as the only jobs that were available outside the home would not even pay the cost of childcare which was $500 and rent which was another $500 a month plus all of the other expenses related to housing and child rearing.

It was only when my daughter was 4 years old that subsidized child care became available in our local town daycare.  I snapped up the opportunity and then could take a job that did not pay well but enabled me to participate in the economy and go back to full time work.

These two very valuable programs enabled me to move myself and my daughters into full participation in the economy, our culture and our democratic process.  Without these two programs, I believe that we would still be mired in poverty and struggling to make ends meet.

Based on my experiences, I would make the following two recommendations:

  1.      A national child care strategy that would make child care affordable and accessible to traditional and non traditional family units regardless of where they lived;
  2.      A national housing strategy that enables women to have safe, adequate, affordable housing.

I thank the committee for taking the time to listen to me and would like to answer any questions you may have.