On March 8, International Women’s Day invites people around the world to come together to celebrate women’s collective achievements, and reflect on the work still needed to achieve gender equality. Three members of Wetaskiwin’s leadership team paused to reflect on this year’s theme – #breakthebias – and what that means here at home and elsewhere.
For Wetaskiwin Coun. Gabrielle Blatz, a Metis woman in municipal leadership, International Women’s Day signifies “the support of women from all racial, age, and socio-economic backgrounds to be in all rooms where decisions are made. When women feel empowered, they can empower other women.”
Wetaskiwin has made celebrating diversity a priority, with steps including its Diversity and Inclusion Task Force. This year’s Women’s Day theme, #BreaktheBias, “has relevance here in Wetaskiwin as we work towards making our city an inclusive city for all,” Coun. Blatz says. “A majority of our senior leadership team are women, and that is something to be extremely proud of as a smaller city.”
At the same time, more work needs to be done.
“There aren’t enough women at the leadership table, and especially women of different racial backgrounds at that. Ensuring that we are not only lifting each other up as women to achieve positions in leadership, but also using more resources to raise up women of colour as they face even more bias than the average person,” Coun. Blatz says. “I am in the rooms where decisions are being made, and I want to be able to use the power I’ve obtained to inspire other BIPOC women to reach the goals that they want to achieve.”
Sue Howard, City Manager for the City of Wetaskiwin, agrees.
“We are a community that continues to struggle with discrimination and are trying to move toward equity, diversity, and inclusivity being the norm. I hope that, one day soon, we do not need to remember to treat people equally – it just happens naturally,” she says.
Howard says that as a feminist, Women’s Day is vital to honour the women before who fought so hard to give her the opportunity to be where she is today.
And she has continued that fight through her own career: Working to be seen as equal in male-dominated industries – engineering and now as CAO – “my passion for equality has strengthened,” she says. And as a mother of three now-grown daughters, it was important they had every opportunity to be equal to men. Even choosing unisex names, so it’s not always easy to identify their gender, “gives them one less hurdle to overcome.”
Howard strives to be part of the solution by not ignoring when someone judges or discriminates against others. “I call them out on their behaviour and challenge them to do better, encouraging them to imagine what it is like to be the other person,” she says.
It’s something she’d like to see more people do.
“Not enough people challenge others on their thinking, focusing instead on the actions that seem more intentional. We all need to stop giving those who appear to discriminate unconsciously a pass.”
Dr. Karen Aberle, Wetaskiwin city councillor and Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Wetaskiwin & District Heritage Museum Centre, reflects on the bias witnessed through her education and career.
At university in 1992, a very small percentage of her professors were women. Today, while the number of post-secondary teachers who identify as female has increased, a corresponding parity in the level at which they’re teaching – tenured versus sessional instructor, for example – has not, Coun. Aberle notes, adding that people still often choose to use the gendered and diminutive term “Miss Aberle,” rather than the gender-neutral and earned title, “Dr.”
Reflecting on the non-profit sector, where approximately two-thirds of people who work or volunteer are women, the last decade has brought great strides in parity in senior management and leadership positions. However, “the larger the institution is, the less likely it is to have women on its Board or as its Executive Director / CEO,” she says.
Gender parity is also elusive in council chambers. While 16 people put their name forward for six councillor positions and four for mayor, and gender parity was close in the candidate list, just 10 per cent of candidates who do not identify as male were elected. “But I don’t walk into council chambers and think ‘ach, look at all the men.’ They are my colleagues, as are Gabrielle and Sue. I respect them all equally, but us three women do share a special bond because of bias, not to mention that they are amazing people I’m proud to have the opportunity to work with,” Coun. Aberle says.
“If I am being honest, personally I often only think about these things when someone asks me about it. That is the importance of International Women’s Day. I am in multiple positions of ‘power’ not typically held by people of my gender. I all too often take this for granted. I am proud of my achievements, not only as a woman, but also a human being,” Coun. Aberle says. “I hope I can help people aspire to follow their desired path of life, despite their gender identity, and we continue to fight to break intrinsic and systemic barriers that exist. For me #BreakTheBias has to mean that we are working to break all biases. I am no more ‘powerful’ than the male or female who chooses to, for example, stay home and raise a family.”