International Women's Day 2012 profiles of exceptional impact and achievement
Women make up over half of the world's population. But millions of women around the globe continue to face formidable challenges in their daily lives. From violence and sexual abuse to workplace discrimination, or the striking rate of women in poverty, it’s clear that there’s still a long way to go.
This week, in honour of International Women’s Day, The Observer is putting the spotlight on a few extraordinary and influential women who are using their unique skills to overcome challenges, break through barriers and make a difference both here in Canada and all over the world. These strong, devoted female figures have all done exceptional work in their fields—in science, philanthropy, journalism, law, business and politics.
By acknowledging their successes, other women may be inspired to dream a little bigger, work a little harder and achieve things they may have never thought were possible.
In her first book, No Logo, she took readers inside sweatshops, creating a powerful image of human rights abuses and the frightening realities of commercialism and globalization. In Shock Doctrine, another international bestseller, she explored the economics of disaster with compelling, on-the-ground accounts of exploitation in the face of catastrophe.
There’s no question that what Naomi Klein does takes guts. She writes about things that others don’t have the courage to address, and that many don’t agree with. The worlds she unveils are full of cruelty, and it’s important that they be seen.
Of course, Klein’s realm of expertise goes much further than capitalism and globalization—over the past year she has been an increasingly vocal advocate for environmental issues, particularly concerning controversial oil pipeline projects and ecologically-damaging operations in the Canadian tar sands. She was one of many outspoken protesters who was arrested at the White House in a 2011 protest against the Keystone XL pipeline, and has also appeared at anti-pipeline events in Vancouver regarding the proposed Northern Gateway project.
With worldwide unrest bubbling up to the surface in the form of new movements like Occupy Wall Street, now is the time for engaged citizens to get educated and take action. And it’s women like Klein who are helping to move the masses.
Approaching economics from a different angle from Klein is Vancouver’s own Tamara Vrooman. Vrooman became CEO of Vancity when she was only 38. No wonder she has been named one of “Canada’s Most Powerful Women” by the Women’s Executive Network Top 100. Not only has she broken through the so-called "glass ceiling", she is also one of the few top executives in the banking sector whose focus is not on the money but on strengthening communities through positive social and environmental change.
As the CEO of the largest credit union in Canada, Vrooman has developed a unique vision of banking based on social values. Under her leadership Vancity became the first Canadian financial institution to be asked to join the Global Alliance for Banking on Values. It was also the first North American credit union to achieve carbon neutrality, as a result of Vrooman’s dedication to sustainability.
After a stint as B.C.’s Deputy Minister of Finance and as the CEO of the Public Sector Employers’ Council, Vrooman came to Vancity in the midst of an economic and mortgage-based crisis. But she’s not one to back down from a challenge. She made bold decisions and took criticism with grace. Now, clients and staff tout the credit union’s unique position as both a financial institution and an “agent of change”.
Vrooman has stayed true to Vancity’s public service agenda—whether it’s through the community grant programs that help get innovative projects off the ground, or the enviroFund initiative to support green projects. Such a personal touch on financial transactions is hard to find, and many clients truly appreciate what the unique institution brings to the table.
Of course, any conversation about women in high places must include a shout out to Canadian Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin. She is the first woman to ever hold her title—the highest legal position in the country—and during her extensive career she has commanded respect both in Canada and abroad.
The Chief Justice has served at every level of Canadian law, from her early days practicing in Alberta and British Columbia to her judicial career with the Supreme Court of B.C. and then the Supreme Court of Canada. She was appointed to her current role in 2000.
Though her judgements may not always satisfy hardcore feminists, Chief Justice McLachlin has been known to stand up for women facing discrimination. For instance, in a 1999 case she condemned an Alberta judge for perpetuating harmful stereotypes about women and consent in sexual assault cases. Later that year, she also wrote a unanimous sex-discrimination decision that reinstated a female firefighter who had lost her job after failing a fitness test designed for men.
More recently, the Chief Justice added her voice to the legal profession's criticism of Conservative Minister Jason Kenney, after he condemned Federal Court judges for not "towing the line" with regards to Tory immigration policies. Standing up for judicial independence is just one of Chief Justice McLachlin's admirable causes, and as others have said, when she speaks up for something, people listen.
Jeannette Corbiere Lavell's words hold equal weight. Elected as president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) in 2009, Lavell has dedicated her life to bettering the lives of Aboriginal women. She was born on Manitoulin Island, Ontario and belongs to the Nishnawbe people, and over the years she has travelled across Canada to work with Native communities.
Corbiere Lavell’s most notable achievement came out of a landmark court case she led in the 1970s to appeal a discriminatory section of the Indian Act, which repealed the Aboriginal status of women who married non-Aboriginal men. Women in this situation—and their children, by extension—lost their status, their treaty benefits and the right to participate in band council. But men, on the other hand, were allowed to keep their status and pass it on to their children, even if they married a non-Aboriginal woman.
Though judges ruled against Corbiere Lavell’s original case, other courageous First Nations women followed in her footsteps. In 1985, after Sandra Lovelace brought the issue to the United Nations International Human Rights Commission, the section these women had fought against was finally removed from the Indian Act.
Now at the head of the NWAC, Corbiere Lavell continues to work tirelessly for Aboriginal women and their rights. It’s a difficult task, faced with shocking statistics about violence among female First Nations. Recent reports show that victimization of Aboriginal women is nearly triple that of non-Aboriginal women. Even more frightening is the fact that over 75 per cent of violent incidents are never reported to police.
Issues surrounding violence are front-and-centre here in Vancouver, with ongoing inquiries into the cases of many missing and murdered Aboriginal women. The depth of community engagement in the area made the city a perfect place for the NWAC and the BC Ministry of Aboriginal Relations to co-host 2011’s Collaboration to End Violence: National Aboriginal Women’s Forum.
The national forum brought respected figures together to discuss new ways to prevent violence and to protect the health and safety of Aboriginal women.
South of the border, another powerful woman named Annise Parker made history when citizens of Houston, Texas elected her as Mayor in 2009. The victory made her the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city, and despite anti-gay attacks from her opponents in the last election, she’s now into her second term in office.
After working for 20 years as a software analyst in Texas’ oil and gas industry, she ran for Houston City Council three times before she became the city’s first openly gay elected official. She acted as Houston’s city controller from 2003 onwards, and as mayor has taken aggressive action to support local development and improve city infrastructure.
Parker—who has two adopted daughters with her life partner Kathy Hubbard—overcame intense discrimination in Houston's 2011 election. One of her major challengers, anti-gay activist Dave Wilson, ran primarily because he disagreed with the city having a lesbian mayor. In his campaign, Wilson repeatedly bashed his opponent’s “homosexual agenda”, but in the end she came out on top.
Recently, Mayor Parker has been making headlines by joining 90 other U.S. mayors in support of the Freedom to Marry initiative. While other notable mayors faced little criticism when they joined the movement, Parker’s support sparked a backlash from the conservative and religious community. One outspoken leader, Pastor Steve Riggle of the Grace Community Church, has actually called for her to step down from office because of her supportive stance on gay marriage.
Parker also took President Barack Obama to task in a recent appearance on a SiriusXM radio show, when she challenged his position on the issue. Obama does support civil unions between gay and lesbian couples and says he’s “evolving” on the idea of marriage, but Parker said the President needs to “evolve a little faster”.
While she may not be the only lesbian mayor in the States, Parker’s determination and her strong leadership in such a major Texas city is seen as an inspiration to other aspiring politicians in the LGBTQ community.
Finally, it's important to remember that the world suffered a great loss this year with the death of Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai, an inspirational Kenyan woman who broke many glass ceilings in her life. Maathai was the first woman in all of East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree, achieving her PhD. in veterinary anatomy from the University of Nairobi in 1971. In addition to becoming the first female professor at the university, she went on to create the groundbreaking Green Belt Movement—a grassroots, community-based organization that began engaging women and girls in planting trees as a way to address key challenges like deforestation, soil erosion and even poverty.
The group has planted over 40 million trees across Africa, and has made significant contributions to communities by improving degraded ecosystems and empowering people in poverty.
In the 1980s and 90s, the GBM also stepped up to join pro-democracy efforts trying to put an end to Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi’s dictatorial regime. Maathai and her colleagues suffered abuse and even imprisonment during their campaign against the regime. But her courage and drive paid off. After Kenya’s first democratic elections in 2002, Maathai became a Member of Parliament and was later appointed Deputy Minister for the Environment.
Before her passing, Maathai was recognized worldwide for her work in environmental and political advocacy. She appeared on “Top 100” lists of influential people from Time Magazine, Forbes, the UK Environment Agency and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). And in 2004, she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.
She passed away in September 2011 in Nairobi, after a long and difficult battle with cancer and is survived by two children.
How far have we come?
These women represent huge strides forward but despite the great achievements of such inspirational individuals, women all over the world are still facing major challenges.
Women and children make up 70 per cent of the 1.5 billion people in the world living on less than a dollar a day. International gender-wage ratios have not improved much since 20 years ago. And according to the 2011 20-first Global Gender Balance Scorecard, females make up just 10% of the executive committees in Top 100 companies from Europe, North America and Asia. Even in the media, women are still routinely being shut out of higher-ranking positions.
Add to that the startling level of violence against women worldwide, and it’s not a pretty picture. One in four North American women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. And in places like Africa, the statistics are even more frightening. For instance, reports say over 400,000 women are raped in the Congo every year.
So how does Canada stack up?
In terms of violence, the numbers are troubling. Statistics show that on average, every six days there’s another Canadian woman murdered by an intimate partner. Over 3,000 women live in emergency shelters to escape abuse, and about half of all women over the age of 16 have experienced some type of physical or sexual violence.
Though its true that crime rates have dropped over the past decade, rates of domestic violence have flat-lined in the past few years. And as mentioned earlier, First Nations women are victimized at a much higher rate than others. As of 2010, there were almost 600 known cases of missing or murdered Aboriginal women, prompting the United Nations and Amnesty International to call on the Canadian government to right these wrongs.
In the workplace, women in Canada consistently struggle with income disparities compared to men of the same education level. As a whole they are less likely to end up in top positions in big business or government. Just look at the current federal cabinet: out of 39 members of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s ministry, only 10 are female.
Despite increasing awareness and charitable work to help confront women’s issues and gender inequality, it seems we’re at somewhat of a standstill. But that doesn’t mean progress won’t be made—it’s simply going to take more action, more determination, and more outstanding female leaders to help pave the way.