What does women’s leadership mean for economic prosperity in Canada? How does poverty affect women’s equality? In the next three weeks, from February 14th to Women’s Day on March 8th, people in Canada are considering questions like this about the clear disconnect between women and full economic, social and cultural equality.
To add to the conversation on women’s equality, we’ve posted the presentation of Harriett McLachlan, the President of our Board of Directors, to the Standing Committee on the Status of Women in November 2014. At the committee, Harriett shared her personal and professional experience with regard to women’s leadership and economic prosperity. Check out her full presentation below:
I appreciate the opportunity to speak here today. My name is Harriett McLachlan, I’m the president of the board of directors of Canada Without Poverty, a non-partisan charitable organization that was founded in 1971 and has representation, from coast to coast to coast, of people with the lived experience of poverty.
I am here today to speak to you of my professional and personal experiences as it relates to women’s leadership and economic prosperity. I have a master’s degree of Social Work from Carleton University and have worked in the non-profit sector in community development for over 20 years. I’ve worked as a Director of a community organization and was employed in other leadership roles across the community sector. I was involved in many exciting projects, such as being instrumental in the transformation of Benny Farm, a project that saw old, abandoned, dilapidated housing units created originally for WW2 veterans, transformed to renovated and newly built mixed private and social housing units, and a vibrant community.
When I think of women’s leadership and economic prosperity I think of wage discrepancies, health benefits and working conditions. I distinctly recall, when I was Director, examining the salary differences between a Social Worker in the non-for-profit sector, like myself, and that of my counter parts who worked in hospitals or CLSC’s, (Health and Social Service organizations under the Ministry of Health). There was a 20,000$ a year difference with respect to those who worked in CLSC’s and 30,000$ difference for those who worked as Social Workers in hospitals. As a Director with many years experience and with a Master’s degree I was paid 20,000$ – 30,000$ a year less than a Social Worker with a Bachelor’s degree and not in employment position as a Director. There were many times that I worked 70 to 80 hours a week in order to get the basic job done since there was inadequate funding to allow for more employees. This compared to my colleagues within hospitals and CLSC’s who worked 40 hours a week. They also had work insurance for health and dental and retirement agreements, which I had none of. These discrepancies would suggest that my work as a Director in the not-for-profit sector was of less value. I might add as well, and as many of us already know, it is women are mainly employed in the not-for-profit community sector, and so with these realities we are actually creating a pool of poor women who have no retirement benefits as a result of their working environments. I report to you the realities in the not-for-profit sector. I worked with other women who were paid less than me, who struggled with not having enough to eat, who lived in their car for five months. I took the initiative to access for them the very services we were providing for the community.
It’s been 15 years that I’m a regular guest speaker at Dawson College in the Social Service Technology program in Montreal, and part of my presentation to students is the description of the organigram of the Ministry of Health and Social services network. What I find interesting and deplorable is that while CLSC’s and community organizations are featured on a par, salaries and working conditions are not. I also have to say that there is scant funding from the Federal level to support community initiatives, projects and development. There needs to be a greater role for Federal involvement within communities. I remember that Industry Canada took a small initiative that helped communities. They provided funds to community organizations for the purchase of computer equipment for public access enabling people across Canada to access the Internet, especially for those who couldn’t afford computers themselves. This is but one small example.
That was something I wanted to highlight from my professional experience. Let’s shift to my personal experience. I want you to know that I have lived in poverty for 34 years, even as a Director holding a Master’s degree. There were many desperate times in those years where I did not eat, was not able to buy food, or I would let my children eat instead. I had hard choices of either buying food, paying renting, or paying my electricity and heating bill. For over 10 years I lived in deplorable housing conditions with sewer rats in my living space and in my children’s beds even. I never had a bedroom, but slept on the sofa in the living room. I could not afford anything more. I want you to know that poverty has cost me a great deal and has taken a heavy toll of my physical and mental health. The toll of poverty and poor salary and working conditions has cut my career short. At the age of 50 I could no longer sustain the demands of poverty while working as an underpaid professional. I envisioned working in my field until the age of retirement, a good 15 years or more, (and without a retirement package or plan). This is a loss of human capital. I am an example of leadership without economic prosperity.
It was always amazing to me that here I was working as a professional helping others with better housing, food security, and other projects and programs to help meet basic needs, yet I myself was struggling so desperately. So what would have made the difference for me and for many like me. Better labour standards for one. And I would say better housing, affordable and accessible housing. Had both or even one been the case I could continue in my professional career and not bear the loss that I do now.
What Canada seriously lacks is a national anti-poverty plan, one that includes a national housing strategy and food security measures. A strategy that has national standards and sees the collaboration between various levels of government and other sectors of civil society. A housing strategy for example would be comprehensive and not one of patch work of one project here or there. One where we do not sit on our laurels because we have one successful project that responds to a certain portion of the population. It has to much more than that, it needs to be collaborative and comprehensive so that people like myself would not have to live with rats. Benny Farm is an excellent example of how this can work. There is a housing project for seniors so that they may live in their homes as long as possible. There is a project for young single mothers who are on their own for the first time. There is also a subsidized housing unit for single mother’s seeking post-secondary education, the success rate being 99% of helping them get out of poverty and launched into professional careers. What I also like about Benny Farm is that there mixed housing such as cooperatives, and rent-to-buy option with condominiums as well as mainstream condos for purchase. It has created a mixed community and a vibrant community. It took the collaboration of the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the city of Montreal, la Société d’Habitation du Québec and community organizations to make this happen and it is a successful and very doable reality. The CLC Canada Lands Company organized Round-Table discussions that brought these various players together so that they could work toward a common measurable goals and timelines. This is one successful example of collaboration. We need this type of collaboration across the country.
As we well know, Canada is the only G8 country without a national housing strategy. We desperately need one for people like myself and for over 4 million other poor Canadians. It is the responsibility of the Federal Government to develop these frameworks and legislation, and it is imperative that they do so since we may well remember that it was in 1976 that Canada ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Here is what also amazes me. We live in a wealthy country, yet my personal and professional reality would likely describe a much poorer and dysfunctional one. Our priorities show that we spend 5-6% of our GDP maintaining poverty in this country. A wealthy country would see that women have what is necessary to move forward in successful careers. One where women would not have to struggle with deplorable housing conditions or other desperate realities. Surely when we are looking at women’s leadership and economic prosperity we need to look to better priorities.
To view the video or audio version of Harriett’s presentation click here.
To check out a great movement in Canada on Women’s economic equality and leadership, check out www.UpForDebate.com