It has been a week since Budget 2017 was tabled, a budget that undertook, for the first time in Canada, a gender-based analysis.
But what is a gender budget?
What it is not is a separate budget for women. In fact, it’s not even merely about gender. Rather, it’s a process, employed throughout the budget cycle, which recognizes how seemingly neutral policies can actually increase inequality between differently situated people. Or how policies intended to help certain groups can fail if systemic barriers aren’t understood and taken into account.
Simply, it’s about asking questions that help us understand if budget priorities, tax structures, and government programs maintain or worsen inequality, or if they help “level the playing field” for people occupying different social locations.
Talking the talk
Budget 2017 mentioned women 274 times, on average about once per page of the budget. That’s a good start. It even acknowledged that there were different kinds of women, mentioning Indigenous women 34 times, and women entrepreneurs 14 times. Disabilities came up 28 times, the term LGBTQ2S+ appears 21 times. Certainly there are women in both of those groups. Tellingly, though, ethnicity is mentioned twice, and minorities only once. A distributional, or income/class analysis is mostly absent.
A whole chapter is devoted to gender, and begins by illustrating the conundrum that Canadian women are among the most educated in the world, with high labour force participation rates, and yet Canada has the 4th largest gender wage gap in the OECD.
What it doesn’t say is that higher minimum wages, better employment standards enforcement, proactive pay equity legislation, and affordable childcare would all go a long way to shrinking that gap for women in Canada.
It is important to point to some major areas that will make a difference in many women’s lives. The budget committed to a new national strategy on gender-based violence, a special advisor on LGBTQ2S+ issues, as well as sorely needed gender and diversity training for federal judges. The (very) beginnings of a national childcare system may be just around the corner. New investments in housing, though backloaded, are also important. ‘
All and all, ‘positive first steps, more work needed’ is a good summary on many of this budget’s action items.
What does (long-term) success look like?
Budget 2017 employed the deliver-ology strategy of stopping every so often to tell readers “what success looks like”. For women, the budget aspires to more equal wages, more women in leadership, and less gender based violence. All good things.
But for many of the gender issues identified in Budget 2017, there was often no bridge between that issue and success. This was especially apparent with regard to innovation and skills training. Investments were made in programs which encourage interest and skills development in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields for young workers. Disappointingly, the gender analysis on this budget line amounted to “and, some young workers are women.” Another line notes that women don’t get as many STEM degrees as men, but carries the analysis no further.
In fact, women have made progress in some STEM fields – in 1987 only 23% of mathematicians, statisticians, and actuaries were women; by 2015 this share increased to 67%. The proportion of women who are physical science and life science professionals also doubled during that period. But for some reason, computer and information systems professionals actually became more male dominated as the proportion of women in the field fell from 29% in 1987 to 23% in 2015. (See Statistics Canada’s Women and Paid Work report). The data suggest there are systemic barriers that exist in that specific field that are going to require much more effort to understand and address.
Another key gap acknowledged by the gender chapter is the availability of intersectional data. Data on persons with disabilities was sourced from a 2012 Statistics Canada survey, and not disaggregated by sex. Some labour force data is available for workers who self-identify as aboriginal (off-reserve only), and workers with landed immigrant status. No data is provided for racialized workers or workers who identify as LGBTQ2. Despite this, no resources are allocated to either Status of Women Canada or Statistics Canada to gather the information that will be necessary to close these data gaps.
And without that information, how do we answer the central question – are we making the right choices that will help us live up to our vision of greater equality?
Asking the right questions
The gender statement in Budget 2017 is admittedly a first step. It explicitly recognizes that government needs to ‘stop and ask for directions’ from civil society and academics, many of whom have been thinking about and analysing budgets with a gender and intersectional lens for more than 20 years. With this gender statement the federal government has started to ask some of the right questions, but there’s so much more work to be done.
It’s a good thing that Canadian feminists are persistent, knowledgeable, and not shy about sharing our insight. You’re going to need it for Budget 2018, Mr. Morneau.