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Women's rights still matter in liberal Canada because gender equality is a long way off, argues Nicholas Woolley

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 choose its next batch of B.Ed. students - Ontario's equivalent to the PGCE. 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 between the ages of 25 and 29 were female.

Pundits blame goofy male role models and computer games but, as always, the education system is a much bigger culprit. Apparently, schools are feminised places where the curriculum is girl-focused.

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. Celebratory television coverage shows rambunctious lads merrily answering questions about chapter three.

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. As recently as the 1960s, some female government workers were expected to resign if they married.

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.

Women still hold the majority of minimum wage jobs, too, but are under-represented at boardroom tables and suffer from "Mommy-tracking" when they return to work after maternity leave, given diminished responsibility in case they decide to get pregnant again. When the businesswoman Belinda Stronach stood for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada in 2004, the press talked about her hair and clothes rather than her ideas. She lost.

Yet my female students think they have it made. Their high marks and places at top universities make them complacent. When asked if they're feminists most shrug or ask why.

The reasons are obvious. 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. That's why feminism still matters.

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

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