Five women who inspire in Ottawa
In honour of International Women's Day, check out five local women who are making a difference in the capital.
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It's International Women's Day on Tuesday and our capital city is chock full of awesome and inspirational women. From a self-proclaimed "tool goddess" to one of Canada's pioneering female engineers, check out this list and reflect on the remarkable women in your life, too.
Ottawa researcher Kate McInturff specializes in gender equality and public policy for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. She’s receiving a Femmy Award Tuesday at Library and Archives Canada in recognition of her work on equal pay, affordable childcare and equality in the workplace. While she said gender equality is getting better, “we haven’t reached 50/50 yet for sure, and there’s definitely work to be done.”
Women still do twice as many hours of unpaid work – childcare, housework, caring for ailing parents – and are way more likely to stay out of the workforce because of it, she said.
McInturff said fixing the system “isn’t rocket science” but buy-in is necessary from government and employers. Most employers don’t mean to pay women differently than men, but if they look at their books they might well find they’re underpaying their female staff. And that’s costly for everyone, because “no one likes to be undervalued,” McInturff said.
Gloucester-Southgate Coun. Diane Deans was a stay-at-home mom when she was first elected to city council in 1994. She’s been in office ever since, and she’s still advocating for the same kinds of community-level services she wanted in the 1990s: local library branches, supportive family programming and a voice for everyday people around the table. But Deans is troubled by the fact that she’s one of only four women on a 24-person council. “It’s the lowest its been in the 20 years I’ve been a member of council,” she said. The lack of women impacts the tone, the debate and even the agenda, she said: women generally have a more co-operative approach to problem-solving, and right now council meetings are combative, she said. That in turn discourages women from running for office. “I think it’s my duty and responsibility to speak about gender equality at the council table and encourage women to get involved in local government.”
Carleton professor Dr. Monique Frize was the first woman to graduate with an engineering degree in Ottawa. That was 50 years ago, in 1966, and her friends and family weren’t too happy about it when she set out to break new ground for women in the field. But since then she's been a prominent member of the biomedical engineering community, working in hospitals to develop lifesaving technology. In 1989 Frize became the first Women in Engineering Chair, a national position that became even more important after 14 female engineering students were gunned down at Ecole Polytechnique later that year. “It became a mission instead of just a job,” Frize said. She’s been active in encouraging women to pursue science careers ever since. On International Women’s Day, she encouraged young women to believe in themselves – even if, like her, the university’s dean called your dad to “talk some sense into your daughter.”
“You’re better than you probably think, and just go for your goals,” Frize said.
Karen Wilson wants women to stop making each other feel guilty for their career choices. As president of the Women’s Business Network in Ottawa, owner of a marketing consultant firm and mother of a young son with autism, she said she doesn’t believe the perfect work-life balance exists. Instead, women need to figure out what works for them and own it. “It doesn’t look the same for any two people,” Wilson said. “My work-life juggle is very, very different than someone else’s, and vice versa.” She said women’s career accomplishments are often measured by the challenges they’ve had to overcome in their personal life, whether that’s being a single mom or having three young kids at home. “Its not necessarily wrong, but its unequal,” she said. She encouraged women entrepreneurs to support and partner with other female-led businesses in the city.
Bettina Vollmerhausen has been taking a sledgehammer to the barriers women face in the world of trades, home renovations and DIY projects. Vollmerhausen, co-founder of the Ottawa Tool Library, isn’t much of a handywoman herself – she works more on the fabric side – but her start-up in Hintonburg has become something of a safe space for women looking to rent tools, learn new skills and make connections in the DIY world. “We have a lot of women saying, ‘I finally feel comfortable asking questions,’” Vollmerhausen said. The library’s Tool 101 workshop, while not marketed specifically to women, is hugely popular with women who are discouraged by husbands who “don’t want them touching their fancy tools,” Vollmerhausen said. She said young women especially are being awakened to the independence handy skills can offer. “It gives them confidence.”