budget gender balance lens

Budget Needs a Work-Life Balance Lens

Much is being made of this federal budget’s gender-equality mandate,but I think the terminology is doing a disservice to the intent and distracting from the real work that must be done. We don’t need a gender lens; we need empathy mapping.

Empathy maps are a tool often used by businesses looking to better understand their customers. If you want to deliver the best user experience for your product or service, you need to understand what your users are actually experiencing and create a solution that speaks to the underlying challenges, not just what you think they need. Creating a product or service because you think it’s amazing is great – unless it doesn’t actually help anyone with a problem they’ve been facing. I think the federal government missed an opportunity to be truly creative and impactful with this budget by focusing too much on expert suggestions, rather than root causes.

For example, one challenge identified for this budget is to increase the number of women working in Canada. The solution offered is allowing a woman’s partner five more weeks of parental leave after the birth of a child.  I’m not convinced this measure will significantly boost women’s participation in the workforce and I think it’s a disservice to all parents to frame it as such.

The statistics show that the rate of women entering the workforce has stalled. That’s alarming and should be addressed at a national, provincial, and even municipal level. In the 1960s and 1970s, less than half of women aged 25 to 54 were working. By the 1980s, that reached more than 60%, and by 2000, roughly 80% of young to middle-aged women were working. That’s still the rate today. The rate for men that age in the workforce has also stalled during this same time (but with a higher percentage taking part), which makes me wonder if we’ve spent enough time asking why people are not working.

Again and again I see professionals in every vocation (particularly those in traditional roles for which our demands are high – doctors, nurses, teachers, etc.) examining the emotional toll of their work and choosing a better balance for themselves and their families. A few weeks parental leave is not what will fix this imbalance. A shift in how we expect people to interact with the labour force is needed.

For generations we expected physicians to care for an immense number of patients, offering services around the clock. We also expected that those physicians had someone else, partner or paid staff, raising their families. Now, we expect both – and that’s unrealistic.

More and more, parents, both mothers and fathers, are choosing to put their families first, rather than their profession. This isn’t a gender issue; it’s a societal change. A more robust way to impact the economy would be to create more flexibility within our current workplaces for everyone, not just those with children and not just when babies are born.

Don’t get me wrong. I think a lot of the initiatives being touted as ‘gender based’ in the budget are useful and necessary. Equal pay for equal work is just common sense and a century overdue. Legal aid funding specified to support victims of workplace sexual harassment will help not only individuals but also society. But I don’t know that you can make the correlation that these programs will increase the number of women participating in the workforce, which is what the government has stated is the purpose. Let’s focus on creating a better balanced approach to life and work for all, and I think we’ll see the economic results we’re chasing – and more.

A version of this post appeared originally in the Times & Transcript. Click here for more of Jenna Morton’s column, She Said.

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