International Women’s Day 2023: How Canada and European countries embrace equity
The first part of our two-part International Women’s Day blog series focused on how the Nordic countries embrace equity for women. In this second and final part, we spoke to our Local In-Market Experts in Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Lithuania to find out more about the situation for women in their countries.
Caroline, based in Montreal, Canada
Gender equality in Canada only emerged as a concept in the last century…
… and the most effective changes took place within the last 50 years. Women fought and won the right to vote in the early 1900s but were not able to run for political office until 1929. It took a while before men conceded that women could do many of the same jobs as them. In the 1960s, for example, my great aunt wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a doctor but despite having excellent marks at university, she was initially refused entry to medical school. Many women at that time were homemakers and did not try to work outside the home.
In the late 1970s, my mother went back to school to complete her high school diploma and then went on to attend university. I remember this being very different from my friends’ moms who were full-time home makers. My mother had been dismayed to learn she was making far less money than men in her same position at the bank, which propelled her to get a degree and advance herself in her career. Even in my first job in the early 1990s, I was surprised to learn that I was not paid as much as my male colleagues. This widespread problem was remedied by the Employment Equity Act 1995 and the Pay Equity Act 2018, then revised last year thanks to a task force seeking to ensure that pay equity is being achieved across the country in all sectors.
Women’s rights and reproductive rights were constantly in the news in the 1980s.
This was also the time when the Canada Health Act was passed, making healthcare free for everyone across Canada. We are fortunate to have free healthcare, subsidised university tuition, substantial maternity leave policies and affordable childcare options – these allow women to pursue higher education and careers without having to choose between working or motherhood.
Where I live in Quebec, there are government subsidised day-cares for pre-school children, and at every elementary school, for only $8 per day. Parents can leave a child at school at 7am and pick them up at 6pm and they will be fed, looked after, and given fun activities throughout the day. Since women used to be solely responsible for childcare, these affordable day-care programmes have permitted women at all economic levels to gain valuable education and work skills and earn money while our children are cared for.
In the last 25 years, schools across Canada have implemented numerous programmes…
… to encourage girls to excel in math and science, giving them more choices when they get to university and college. All public post-secondary institutions are subsidised, courses cost anywhere from $1,000 to $6,000 per year, and students can apply for student loans and bursaries if they cannot afford tuition. With a range of repayment plans, it is rare for graduates to feel financially encumbered by student loans as they embark on their careers. These government policies have paved the way for any Canadian to further their education. Nowadays we see more women pursuing higher education in medicine and law than men, creating a cycle of wealth that perpetuates, allowing these women’s daughters more options for their own lives. I know that there are still fewer female entrepreneurs and executives at large companies, but I believe it is only a matter of time before the changes of the last 25 years truly level the playing field.
There are still some older people who remain unconvinced that women and men are equal. I know that my grandpa who received his engineering degree in the 1960s did not work with many women, and he was cared for each day by my stay-at-home grandmother. But very few Canadians – whether they are politically liberal or conservative – would vote to claw back women’s rights, as has been seen in our neighbour to the south.
I suspect the fact that most Canadians are “religiously unaffiliated” is a significant factor in women’s reproductive freedoms here.
In the US, the decision to overturn Roe v Wade was made by Christian lawmakers. Here in Canada, I don’t believe I have ever heard a politician publicly state his or her religious beliefs. Only about a fifth of Canadians say they attend church regularly, and this number has been on the decline for years. As a multicultural, predominantly non-Christian populace, we seem to be accepting of our differences and tolerant of one another.
Today, my 15 year old daughter told me she doesn’t believe that women have fewer opportunities than men to pursue the life they desire. I’m happy that the policies and laws our government created around gender equality over the past 50 years have helped her to feel this sense of freedom.
Axelle, from Ghent, Belgium
From my point of view, women have equal rights and similar opportunities to men in Belgium.
As a law student, one of the stories I learned and which makes me proud to be a woman in Belgium is the story of the Popelin sisters. One sister studied medicine and opened her own pharmacy. The other sister studied law but was not allowed to become a lawyer, as this was a men-only profession. As a result, in 1888 (!) both sisters founded the Ligue Belge du droit des Femmes to fight for equality and took the case to the highest court in Belgium. Unfortunately, they lost, but they are very inspiring. They were the first Belgian feminists!
To me, the greatest gender equality win for Belgium is that as a 28 year old woman, I don’t feel I have fewer opportunities or that certain doors are closed to me because I am a woman.
Women receive excellent health care during and after pregnancy.
However, paid maternity leave is fairly short (three months, to be taken any time during or after pregnancy) compared to leaders such as the UK, Croatia, Bulgaria, etc. Day-care is expensive and quite stressful for many parents, since they often have to apply for a nursery place as soon as they conceive (sometimes before the three-month mark) to ensure they receive a spot. There is definitely room for improvement in this area.
There is no difference between access to education for boys and girls.
Higher education is accessed by as many women as men. Some areas of education have more women than men (such as nursing), or more men than women (such as engineering), but I don’t believe this is unique to Belgium.
The pay gap between genders is not prominent compared to other countries.
In the workplace, women receive many opportunities to grow, develop and obtain senior positions. However, in some work places, macho behaviour can contribute to an uncomfortable environment for women.
Belgium’s international role plays a part.
I believe the fact that we are the capital of the European Union (Brussels is host to 38 EU organisations) has a positive influence on Belgian politics and culture. Belgium is a hub for intellectual citizens from all over Europe who live in Brussels and its surroundings to represent their countries or live and work in Belgium. These people bring their own vision, mindset, and culture, which in turn, influences our culture and society. I believe this has contributed to a positive conversation around gender equality.
Women in Belgium have amazing opportunities to develop their passion for sports.
Despite being a small country, Belgian women lead the world in many sports: athletics, gymnastics, tennis, horse riding, and others. Women in sports have been amazing role models for girls: Kim Clijsters (tennis), Elise Mertens (also tennis), Tia Hellebaut (high jump), Nafissatou Thiam (athletics), Nina Derwael (gymnastics), and many more!
Leco, based in Tilburg, Netherlands
In the Netherlands, there is great emphasis on gender equality.
The country has laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender, such as the General Equal Treatment Act. One factor that contributes to the good treatment of women is the Dutch tradition of strong social welfare and progressive values. Our country has a long history of promoting gender equality and women’s rights, which has led to policies and initiatives aimed at promoting gender equality in various areas, including education, the workplace, and politics.
We are fortunate to have a high level of economic development and strong social safety net.
The Netherlands has a relatively high standard of living, which can provide women with access to educational and career opportunities, as well as financial security. The country’s social welfare system provides support for working parents, which makes it easier for women to balance work and family responsibilities.
I asked my girlfriend how she experiences gender equality in our country and this was her response: “I feel society is changing in a positive way, where women and men have (or are going to have) the same chances at getting their dream job. Most management functions are still occupied by men, as at my company, but women do get more chances and are often encouraged to start their own business to achieve their goals. Dutch people really respect women and discrimination based on gender is very rare these days. If it occurs in public, I’m sure that someone would step in and let the person know that they are wrong.”
There will always be functions that are more suitable for men or women, but if someone of the other gender wants to go for a certain role or opportunity, their chances are going to be equal. One thing I like about the Netherlands is that we pay attention to women who are currently working in jobs that mostly only men do. For example, there is a show on television about female lorry drivers to encourage gender equality in every workplace.
The Netherlands has a long history of promoting women’s political participation and representation.
Political parties in the Netherlands are required to have a minimum of 30% female candidates on their candidate lists. This quota has undoubtedly helped to increase the number of women in politics.
An initiative aimed at promoting gender equality is the ‘Talent to the Top’ programme, which aims to increase the number of women in leadership positions in the public and private sectors. The programme encourages companies and organisations to set targets for increasing the number of women in leadership positions and provides guidance and support to help them achieve these goals. I believe there are subsidies available to companies that implement policies that promote work-life balance.
Almost every citizen will support and cheer our women’s national football team.
The profile of the women’s national team has been growing in recent years and at the last European and World Championships, you could really feel the excitement every time the team would play.
The gender pay gap in the Netherlands remains an issue.
Despite efforts to close the gap, women in the Netherlands earn on average around 15% less than men. This gap is even wider for women who work part-time or in low-wage sectors. The causes are complex, but factors such as occupational segregation, discrimination, and the unequal distribution of care responsibilities between men and women are often cited. The Dutch government has introduced various measures such as transparency requirements for companies and initiatives to promote equal pay. However, this remains a challenge.
Rosita, based in Utena, Lithuania
Lithuania has made significant progress in gender equality in recent years.
When I returned to Lithuania from the UK, I noticed a big shift in women taking leading positions in areas like IT, even becoming programmers and engineers, which previously was unheard of. Government support for working parents, such as maternity and paternity leave, has been important in achieving this.
Currently, about a third of Lithuanian MPs are women, and we’ve had a female President in the past. Generally, the gender equality debate here is constructive and forward-looking, with a focus on identifying and addressing areas where progress is needed. There are many people actively working to promote gender equality, whether through advocacy, activism, or policy work.
Less positively, the gender pay gap persists.
Women earn about 14% less on average than men. There is still a prevailing belief in some companies that it’s good to hire women “because they’re cheaper”. And childcare is still an issue – there’s a lack of affordable, high quality options, especially in smaller towns and cities, which makes it harder for women to balance work and family responsibilities.
In business, women are under-represented in senior positions, with only around 6.7% of board members in the largest companies being female. It is not uncommon for women to be expected to take on most caregiving responsibilities, even if they work outside the home as well. This makes it challenging for women to advance in their careers or pursue other goals, as they may not have the same level of support as their male counterparts.
Some gender stereotypes endure.
Some voices within the political sphere are resistant to change, and as a result, conservative views on gender roles and family life persist in certain segments of society. This is related to our history and culture because since we gained independence from Soviet Russia, we tend to say that the ‘Soviet mentality’ still is with us, especially with older people.
But overall, Lithuania can be considered a country that is making progress towards gender equality, even if there is still work to be done to ensure that women have the same opportunities and rights as men.
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