Feminization of Poverty and Education in Canada Research Paper

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Feminization of Poverty and Education in Canada

It is often assumed that gender divisions in the economy and major political and social institutions are higher in the developing countries than in the developed nations of Western Europe, Japan, and the United States. Many UN, UNDP, UNIFEM and other reports suggest that women suffer from greater inequality of opportunities in the non-industrialized world. Estimates suggest that from sixty to seventy percent of the poor people in the developing world are female (Marcoux 1998). While these reports are not without merit, they are sometimes misleading as the level of gender inequality is still quite high in much of the industrialized countries.

Available data suggests that poverty in the developed countries is also unevenly distributed among men and women. This paper will discuss the specific case of Canada where feminization of poverty has significantly influenced the so-called "equality of opportunity" for education in the last one and half centuries, making it harder for women to move along upward social mobility. The purpose of looking at Canada is twofold. Canada is one of the most developed countries in the world and the country leaders promote Canadian-style education as a model for many developing countries to follow. The second purpose of looking at Canada is that there is an academic bias of focusing on the American experience when it comes to addressing social problems related to gender in developed nations. Describing social problems of developed countries for the purpose of contrasting does not need to focus on the United States. Critically analyzing the Canadian experience may also demonstrate that there are common themes in gender relations among developed countries that might of interest to readers in both countries.

In the last fifty years, the Western societies have made tremendous progress in improving gender relations among individuals. Women today are more visible in the public spheres which had previously been reserved for men, and most North Americans generally subscribe to the idea that men and women should have equal rights. However, prejudice against women -- expressed in blatant or subtle manners -- still exists, in popular culture, the government, the workplace, and, no less importantly, the educational sector. The purpose of this research is not simply to look at sexism and gender discrimination in the Canadian society -- a theme too general and too broad for a short paper such as this -- but explore how gender biases have influenced the educational sector and made it much harder for Canadians to achieve one of the nation's most cherished ideals: equality of opportunity.

In this paper, we will see that women in Canada have been systematically relegated to lower positions with lower opportunities and pay in the last hundred and fifty years, and that education has played an important role in that process. As victims of any unequal relations, women have struggled against feminization of professions that relegated women to a lower strata in the society, especially with the rise of feminist movements in the '60s and '70s, but the conservative and neoliberal politicians lately began to attack limited feminist gains by ringing alarm bells over the gains of women and the presumed failures of men in education. It is alleged these days that if the present course in education continues, the future is going to be female. But research shows that such concerns are vastly exaggerated since men still dominate women in having access to better educational opportunities as well as higher paid jobs. Men and women are still concentrated in specific kinds of positions and jobs that perpetuate gender divisions in the society.

The term "feminization of poverty" was introduced in 1978. Since then it went through several redefinitions. Initially, it referred to an increase in the proportion of women who were poor. Some later definitions referred to an increase in the proportion of poor families headed by lone women (Dooley 1994). At the heart of any definition, however, lies the suggestion that the burden of poverty falls more heavily on the shoulders of women than men. Research shows that in Canada both the number of poor women and the number of poor families headed by lone females have increased lately.

For example, in a report summarizing some of the changes taking place in late '80s and early 90s, Taylor (1994) pointed out that only a minority of women -- mostly white and well-educated -- were moving up the social ladder but even they were gaining at a "glacial pace." And while more women were at the workforce than ever before, the unemployment rate for women began to rise (10.1% in 1992, up from 9.3% in 1991). Most women were locked in the service-sector jobs and the service-sector wages began to fall across the country. In the province of Quebec, 28,000 jobs were lost between September and October 1991, and 27,000 of these jobs had been held by women. Taylor also noted that "the growing numbers of women living without spouses has added to the feminization of low income in Canada. Together with female lone-parent families, women who live alone, particularly elderly women, made up a disproportionately large share of those with low incomes by the mid-1980s" (Taylor 1994).

The division of labor along gender lines is also reflected in the educational sector. As Wotherspoon (2004: 134) notes, deriving from an early 1990s report commissioned for the Canadian Teachers' Federation, that "women constituted 94% of teachers in kindergarten to grade 3, 72% of teachers in grades 4-6, but only 53% of teachers in grades 7-9 and 46% of those in grades 10-12." And while most of the teaching positions in schools were held by women, only 22% of principles and 36% of vice-principles in elementary schools, and only 8% of principles and 17% of vice-principles in high schools, were women. On average the percentage of district superintendents and directors of education among women was 8. Higher education jobs correspondingly were disproportionately held by men.

The situation has changed little since then. Women are still mostly concentrated in elementary and secondary level jobs, while men are concentrated in post-secondary level jobs. As Wotherspoon (2004: 134) writes, women represent "two out of five full-time community college instructors and only one out of four full-time (compared to two out of five part-time) university faculty." According to recent statistics on gender divisions at the university level, around 60% of faculty in positions leading to tenure, 75% of tenured faculty, and almost 90% of faculty at the top academic positions are held by men. The unequal division of faculty positions is also reflected in male and female teachers' salaries. The average salary for women among full-time faculty in Canadian universities in 2001-2 was 14.5% lower than it was for men, while at full professor rank the average salary for women was 6.5% lower. Wotherspoon (2004: 135) concludes that "these elements are indicative of how individual and structural forces combine to produce unequal opportunities for men and women in teaching, as in many other occupations and spheres of life." In other words, there is no doubt that feminization of low-income jobs is still in place in Canada.

"Equality of opportunity" implies that in a given society "resources are distributed unequally . . . But . . . access to the structured inequality should be open to all without regard to the individual's social class origins, their parental resources, their religious affiliations and, in more contemporary discussions, their membership in minority groups or their sex" (Young 1990: 164). In its relation to education, equality of opportunity, as Lessard (1995: 184) identifies, refers to "equality of access, equality of treatment, and equality of results" (italics original). The first implies that any individual, regardless of one's race, color, ethnic origin, class, religious background, or sex should have equal access to education. The second implies that specific expectations and needs of socially and culturally diverse groups in schools should be met by offering students corresponding programs and teaching procedures. And the equality of results implies that physically, intellectually, and socio-culturally handicapped students should be compensated with additional programs, ensuring "that everyone in the system gets what is needed to function, contribute, and compete in the adult world" (Lessard 1995: 184).

But a critical analysis of the way the Canadian educational institutions functioned in the last century suggests that equality of opportunities in education has been a myth rather than reality (Young 1990). On the contrary, the inequality of opportunities has been the rule. The availability of educational opportunities depends on individuals' social background, race, and sex. For instance, various mechanisms in high schools discourage girls from taking math and other hard science classes. Likewise, members of ethnic minorities in Ontario schools have less "than average educational attainments and continue to be streamed disproportionately into less advanced school programmes" (Curtis, Livingston, and Smaller 1992: 7). Curtis, Livingston, and Smaller also show that social class plays a crucial role in students' ability to succeed in schools. Working-class students, they argue, have been systematically mistreated. Because of the…[continue]

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