View from Here - Cherchez le feminisme, pardieu

11th September 2009 at 01:00
Women's rights still matter in liberal Canada because gender equality is a long way off, argues Nicholas Woolley

I'm in a lecture hall with a crowd of nametag-wearing teachers. We're here to help our local faculty of education in Ontario choose its next batch of BEd students. As ever, most of the applicants are women. Despite efforts to attract more men - especially at the primary level - there are no real signs of change.

"We were looking into setting up affirmative action for male candidates," the faculty leader explains. "But our lawyers said no."

The problem can't be brushed aside with the standard cliches: teaching is a feminine, nurturing profession; men are looking for more prestigious, financially-rewarding work. In Canada, women undergraduates outnumber men, even in engineering. By 2006, 60 per cent of graduates aged between 25 and 29 were female.

Some normally co-ed elementary schools are trialling gendered English classes. For boys, this means male teachers, stories about swashbuckling adventures and hands-on assignments. They're finally getting lessons that interest them, advocates say.

Ontario's government recently gave schools discretionary funding to spend on boys' literacy. At conferences, getting male students back on track is the topic du jour. The assumption that boys need a special hand-up is based on the premise that, otherwise, all things are equal. That is, however, far from the case.

Even now, women in Ontario earn 29 per cent less than men and they juggle more responsibilities. Most women hold down full- or part-time jobs but also do the bulk of the housework and child-rearing. They report higher stress levels and lower self-esteem. They suffer from "Mommy-tracking" when they return to work after maternity leave, given diminished responsibility in case they decide to get pregnant again.

Yet my female students think they have it made. Their high marks and places at top universities make them complacent. The fact is that, whether or not boys receive extra help, they'll still earn more, work less and live happier lives regardless of whether or what they bother to study.

Here in liberal, progressive Canada, gender equality is a long way off.

The university lawyers made the right decision: in this climate, any affirmative action for males is just wrong.

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