Every year, our governments produce a new budget setting out their spending and policy priorities for the year ahead. Every year, the expectations of what the budget should do seems to be an attempt to balance between growth and social good.
Done right, the government can do both. It's just a matter of priorities and what decisions are made to implement the programs in the budget.
Heading into the next federal budget, slated for February 27, several groups are calling for various ways to boost the economy and to build the social safety net. Unifor is among them. Like others, Unifor believes that improving infrastructure, bringing in universal pharmacare, building a high-speed rail line across Southern Ontario and Quebec, and a workable plan to transition workers affected by climate change measures will not only give a needed boost to the economy, but make life better for everyone in Canada.
To truly use the budget as a way to address inequity in our society, we need to go further. That's why a gender-based budget is so important, and why the government's commitment to a gender-based budget is so welcome.
Building a gender-based budget means more than just putting money into issues we tend to think as being targeted at women, such as child care, parental leave or programs meant to fight violence against women.
To be truly effective, government policy and budgets need to reflect a fundamental rethink of how society operates, how women work and live in that society, and the choices women make each day of their lives, and why.
One really interesting example of this is something as simple as how we plow snow.
On the face of it, you'd thing a cleared street is a cleared street. A car doesn't care if a man or a woman is behind the wheel, and the snow plow doesn't care who is driving, as long as the road is clear.
The thing is, men are more likely to be driving cars to work than women.
Despite all our progress and talk of equality, women still make less money than men. As a result, women are more likely to need to walk to work or take public transit. Men, who make more money on average, are more likely to drive to work.
As a result, any snow plow budget that puts emphasis on clearing the streets for cars also puts men at an overall advantage when it comes to getting to work. Those trudging down unplowed sidewalks and climbing snowbanks to get on a bus are at a disadvantage. To make snow plowing gender-balanced, then, you need to put an added effort into plowing sidewalks and making sure that transit stops are clear of snow.
While snow plowing, of course, is a municipal issue, the example set by Stockholm and its current plowing policies shows what can be done when we really think hard about the difference between how men and women go about their days, including the implications of women simply making less money than men.
Similarly, a recent study sponsored by the Canadian government and the Bank of Montreal found that while women entrepreneurs account for about half of new and small businesses, they are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to getting government development grants.
Every budget, it seems, contains something about job creation. We've all come to know the buzzwords of modern budget making — phrases like "spurring innovation" and "modern technology."
The thing is, women entrepreneurs overwhelmingly start new businesses in the service sector, according to the study. Men dominate the tech sector, and so tend to get most of the money from grants meant to encourage new employment, because such government programs tend to be based on innovation and technology.
True gender-based budgeting doesn't just consider where we think women could or should be down the road
According to the study, businesses run by women tend to employ more people, which means that gearing money toward sectors dominated by men is not only gender-biased, it would seem to go against the goal of creating more jobs.
We can, and should, encourage more women to get into science and technology. The same is true of getting more women into skilled trades, traditionally dominated by men. Doing so would certainly be part of a gender-based budget, but we can't stop there.
It is equally important to address the reality of women's lives and the sexism that plagues our society, our workplaces and our communities. While the last budget made honourable commitments and started a long overdue gender-based analysis, the budget promises came with few details, and little in the way of actual money commitments.
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True gender-based budgeting doesn't just consider where we think women could or should be down the road, but recognizes and respects the context and differing context of where women are now. It is also about considering gender inequality and having an analysis of the system that creates barriers for women.
The federal government's Auditor General has pointed out in two audits that Canada has consistently failed to bring in truly gender-based budgets, or assess the impact of gender budgets on gender equity.
By having an open and honest discussion about the implications of policy and budget decisions on the lives of women, we can change that.
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