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Women in positions of power

by Savanna Craig April 11, 2017
Women in positions of  power

Examining sexism, mansplaining and the gender-based obstacles women face in their careers

Regardless of the strides taken by Canadian women to gain rights and strengthen their position in society, issues of gender equality are still present and prominent today. Women in Canada earn 72 per cent of a man’s wage, and various obstacles and barriers hinder them in their careers.

The Concordian sat down with five women in positions of power to discuss intersectional, gender-based obstacles and sexism they have faced in the workplace.

Homa Hoodfar, a retired professor of sociology and anthropology at Concordia University, experienced physical and emotional struggles in the last year during her 112-day imprisonment in Evin prison in Iran. Looking back at the days before her imprisonment, Hoodfar recalled barriers she faced as a professor, a researcher and a young, female immigrant.

“I didn’t experience my gender separate from my ethnicity,” said Hoodfar. “The question was I was a woman—but also I was an immigrant—so there are two different obstacles.”

Despite working in the more female-driven departments of sociology and anthropology, Hoodfar said she didn’t feel she was taken seriously enough. During her first few years of teaching at Concordia, she said she and some of her colleagues felt that, if they were less formal or less strict, students wouldn’t take them as seriously as male professors.

Graphic by Florence Y

“In my case, I also had an accent. I [am] Iranian and so it was—when I was younger—it was a problem, and then [when] I got older that kind of passed,” Hoodfar said. The increase in respect is one of the advantages of getting older, she added with a laugh.

Hoodfar’s research involves studying gender in the Middle East. Often, people criticize the sexism and gender inequality present in Muslim cultures, but the presence of these issues in other cultures and religions is not discussed as much, said Hoodfar.

“It has been a challenge throughout to talk about these issues, but part of academia and the scholarly work is to … find out and come out with a more realistic understanding of the context,” she said.

She said discussions around feminism have altered throughout her life. “Well certainly 20 years ago … not everybody, but a lot of people looked at feminism more as a political stance than a scholarly stance,” Hoodfar said. “[Now] it is fairly well-established that feminism, just like class analysis, is a very important perspective.” She said, while there are still people who do not accept feminism, they do not feel as comfortable expressing these views.

In terms of critiquing the current state of the workforce, Concordia alumna and current managing director of the Youth and Innovation Research Project at University of Waterloo, Ilona Dougherty, said she finds men still have more power in the workforce.

“What I feel like I’ve observed in my career is men—I don’t exactly know why this is—but men tend to move forward more quickly, just based on their ideas, versus on what they’ve actually accomplished,” Dougherty said. She added that she believes women are asked to prove the validity of their ideas more often than men. “There’s definitely a dynamic where we expect that men are experts, and we seem to have a little bit harder [of] a time accepting women as thought leaders or experts,” she said.

Since graduating from Concordia, Dougherty has led a national charity committed to generating youth voter engagement for 10 years. Dougherty, who has also worked as a keynote speaker and a columnist, said she’s noticed many of the spaces she’s worked in were predominantly male.

Having been on at least five boards of directors, including Volunteer Canada and Michaëlle Jean Foundation, Dougherty said she found herself being disregarded sometimes. However, she did note other boards were very supportive. “It’s kind of the double whammy of being young and being female, which I think is pretty challenging,” she said. “It’s hard to tell when it’s gender and when it’s age … When you’re challenged on something irrelevant when you’re an expert, that’s not very fun.”

“I definitely have been the most expert person in the room and I’ve been criticized on body language,” she said. “[I’ve been] taken aside and told that I cross my arms too much or that I was looking frustrated—I was in a board meeting that was frustrating,” she said. “My ideas [were] being dismissed because of small things.”

In terms of spaces within student politics and Concordia governance, Lucinda Marshall-Kiparissis, general coordinator of the Concordia Student Union (CSU), has found herself being overly aware of her femininity in environments with administrators, where these spaces are predominantly male. Marshall-Kiparissis said she has found herself not wanting to look informal, so she will dress up, as she is conscientious of the fact she may not be taken as seriously otherwise.

However, Marshall-Kiparissis recognizes her privilege, as she is a white woman who identifies as the gender she was born, is able-bodied, and a woman who falls under conventional hetero-norms of appearance. “It’s easier for me to go into a space and represent myself as this image of what it is to look like a woman [and] to be taken seriously in professional spaces.”

Graphic by Florence Y

“Something I noticed a lot on council, even as a councillor and even as an executive, is I would say something or I would make a point, and for a lack of a better term, there’s a pattern of mansplaining,” said Marshall-Kiparissis. She identifies mansplaining as where after she explains a situation or makes a statement, a man will then restate exactly what she said.

“I’m not saying this is all males or male-identifying people who [are] in these positions, but it’s a pattern of peers raising their placards and saying the same thing I said but with the sense of, ‘Well if I’m saying it then you know it makes it real,’” she said. “There is a tendency that I’ve seen a lot more with male-identified folks, where they really want to hear themselves talk.”

Arts and Science Federation of Associations (ASFA) vice-president of internal affairs and soon-to-be interim general coordinator, Julia Sutera Sardo, has had similar experiences with of mansplaining. During an ASFA council meeting on Jan 12, Sutera Sardo told a male colleague to stop mansplaining after she was discussing her motion for ASFA to support and fund menstrual products for those that experience periods. In addition, when she tried to introduce menstrual hygiene products, she said her idea was interrupted and shut down because some men in the room felt uncomfortable discussing providing these products.

Regardless of this instance, Sutera Sardo has seen an improvement among council members. “I have noticed an improvement at ASFA because people think about things before they state them, I think having our council meetings filmed, for example, that brings a lot of transparency to the meeting and people are more careful of what they say and how they react.” She said this has helped reduce the accounts of mansplaining. However, she said she still notices hints of mansplaining now and then.

Outside of Canada, sexism is more prominent and obvious, whereas in Canada some find sexism to be more camouflaged.

Canada is not as overt with sexism, but however more covert, said Andrea Krasznai, the current president of ASFA. She said it may be harder for her to identify sexism because it’s more subtle. She found, in her country of origin, Romania, she has experienced more sexist behaviour.

Krasznai has not encountered apparent obstacles or discrimination within the Concordia community over identifying as lesbian, but in the educational system in Romania, she was bullied. However, she did hear comments on her sexuality while attending the High School of Montreal Adult Centre. At one point, she was told she was too girly to be gay, based on how she dressed.

However, at the first job she had in Montreal, a McDonald’s, she was hired at the same time as someone else, who was male. “I did all the jobs, I did the drive-thru, the cash, the kitchen—at one time I did all three jobs at the same time while he was stocking up the kitchen.” She said soon afterwards the male employee was promoted. “He only knows one position, [whereas] I know three positions.” She said it was hurtful.

“I used to be a very anxious girl when I came into Concordia in 2013 and now I’m the president of the third largest faculty in Canada,” said Krasznai.

“I feel like a lot of the times the roles that we’re told that we can’t take in society or what we should do, regardless of our gender, dictates what we think we can or cannot do,” said Krasznai. “If you want to do something, you can do anything.”

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