15 Minutes on Women’s Economic Empowerment

Episode Transcript

Lama Alsafi (00:00): Hello, and welcome to 15 Minutes to Change the World, where in 15 minutes or less, you’ll learn a bit more about the world and how you can help change it for the better.

Lama Alsafi (00:21): My name is Lama Alsafi, and I’m the host of this podcast.

Today we’re speaking with Anjum Sultana, the National Director of Public Policy, Advocacy and Strategic Communications for YWCA Canada. Anjum will be talking with us about women’s economic empowerment: what it means, how women’s inclusion and leadership benefits everyone, and YWCA’s work to create systemic change for women in the workplace.

Thanks so much for joining us, Anjum, so we’re really excited to have you here. We’ll dig right into the questions. You know, we use the term economic empowerment all the time in our lines of work. It might be a new idea though, for some of our listeners. Can you explain a little bit about what this means?

Anjum Sultana (01:02): Yeah. This is a really important part of the work we do at YWC Canada, and it’s really ensuring that people are able to achieve their full potential, whether that means participating in the economy, having the information, they need to make economic decisions and overall feeling that when it comes to the economy, there’s a place for them. And I’ll say one of the components that we talk a lot about around economic empowerment is decent work, and recognizing that decent work requires the floor of labor protections, requires employment standards. For us, decent work looks like ensuring equal pay for equal work, pay equity. It means having benefits like paid sick leave, which, you know, during the pandemic we’ve seen how important that is. And I think ultimately when people are spending so much of their lives doing paid work, and I’d also say unpaid work, we want to make sure they’re doing it in the best possible conditions so that they could have happy and healthy lives. And as we’ve seen in this pandemic, the health of our society is very much linked to the health of our economy and vice versa. And so economic empowerment is a important way of us getting to that health on both sides.

Lama Alsafi (02:18): We know that women face unique challenges when it comes to their inclusion and leadership in the economy, around the world and right here in Canada, too. So what do you think Anjum are the biggest barriers that women face when it comes to their participation and leadership in the Canadian workforce?

Anjum Sultana (02:34): I think one of the most important things is recognizing the different roles we all play in addition to work. And we know that women do a larger proportion of the unpaid care work of caring for children, caring for people who may have, who may be older. And so recognizing, you know, the wrap around supports for them to succeed. So having investments in childcare, that’s an important part of it. I think also recognizing how we can address unconscious bias in the workplace. We’ve actually seen over time more and more women pursue education, higher education, but we’re still not seeing that full equality in positions of leadership. And so I think that’s something we have to figure out, where’s the unconscious bias, think about what types of active supports we can provide, and really recognizing when half of the population is not represented in all of these positions of leadership and decision-making, we all lose out.

Lama Alsafi (03:35): What does unconscious bias mean? Can you tell our listeners please?

Anjum Sultana (03:39): Yeah, so unconscious bias, you know, that systemic bias that might be there through sexism, through racism, through homophobia, biphobia and not recognizing the types of microaggressions that might also play out in the workplace and have that can demoralize and impact people’s ability to show up in their full selves. I think it’s also minimizing contributions that different people are making. So that’s something, sometimes people are not even aware that they’re doing that. And so it’s untangling that and making sure that we address that because it does impact economic opportunities and outcomes.

Lama Alsafi (04:20): And how can we work collectively to break down these sorts of barriers and improve and increase women’s participation in leadership in the Canadian workforce? You mentioned, for example, putting in place the wrap around supports like ensuring that the funding for childcare is there.

Anjum Sultana (04:35): Yeah, so one of the things, you know, I’m a big believer in is every single sector and pillar of society has a role to play. So thinking about, for example, nonprofits and charities, we do a lot of work with different equity seeking groups, thinking about what types of network buildings we can do, what kind of capacity building we can do. That’s an important role that nonprofits and charities can play. I think there’s interesting partnerships that can happen with the private sector. And I think right now a big conversation point is re-skilling and up-skilling. And I think if we can have more interesting partnerships between the private sector, public sector and civil society on that issue, we’ll be able to break down these barriers

Lama Alsafi (05:16): Anjum, what do you think is the difference between equity and equality in the workplace and why is it an important distinction to make?

Anjum Sultana (05:24): So equality in the workplace, maybe everyone gets access to just like the same type of environment, but equity would be understanding that people have different needs. And an example of this is remote work or flexibility in the workplace. I’ll say before the pandemic, a lot of feminist and disability justice advocates had talked about how do we increase flexibility in the workplace? How do we ensure that if people needed to, they could work remotely so that they could balance maybe multiple needs or multiple responsibilities that they have. And then with the pandemic overnight, people were able to do that remote work. And so I think that is a particular way of doing work, where people are still able to produce high quality content, high quality work, but they’re able to do it in a way that works for their life and works for their responsibilities and needs.

Lama Alsafi (06:16): Do you think that this trend will continue or do you do hope that it will, to have the ability to work remotely in order to be more inclusive, to bring more groups into the workforce that previously would have faced some barriers?

Anjum Sultana (06:30): So I think there’s something that has happened in this pandemic that many of the types of accommodations or types of approaches we took, seemingly overnight, people are recognizing, hey, it’s actually possible. I think pre -pandemic, there was a lot of resistance, but now the proof case is there, this is possible. It’s easier to make the workplace work for people. I think also I want to share with the audience, you know, in previous pandemics, they actually were the catalyst for a shift in the way the economy worked. I’m thinking about the black death and the plague, in the 1600s. In around that time, that’s when the shift happened from feudalism to agrarian capitalism. And so we saw that shift there. And I’m wondering in this current moment, are we also at that economic turning point? And I think that’s going to stick with us as one of the legacies of this time.

Lama Alsafi (07:25): Would you tell our listeners please about YWCA’s Born To Be Bold initiative and the women you work with?

Anjum Sultana (07:33): Yeah absolutely. So across the country, we have 31 YWCAs that do really important essential services. And this ranges from childcare to shelter services to also employment and training programs. And one of the things we recognized is how do we support women who are harder to reach, who may be facing systemic barriers? And that’s where this project was born out of, so why do we say it’s Born To Be Bold. And what we did in this project was start to evaluate promising practices around not only employment and training, but also how to make the workplace work for women, make the labour market work for women. And we identified promising practices like access to transportation. That was sometimes a barrier, especially in rural communities, in terms of accessing not only employment and training programs, but also workplaces. Looking at things like childcare, for example, flexibility in the workplace. And one of the other lessons, as well as in these different types of skilling programs, rescaling our employment and training programs, there’s a real opportunity when you have a cohort model and you can build a community. And I think that’s something, people are really interested in building networks and a way to do that is through that cohort model of re-skilling programs.

Lama Alsafi (08:50): This sounds like a very exciting program. I wonder if you had a message to policy makers or influencers who are out there in the policy space, what’s something that you’d like them to know about this program or about this work?

Anjum Sultana (09:05): I think one of the things we need to recognize is that this pandemic is different. It’s different in terms of who it’s impacted and how, and so we can’t use our traditional measures. We can’t use what we’ve always done. We need to do things differently. And that’s what a feminist economic recovery plan offers, a new playbook to address the challenges of this time. And I think there’s a real recognition that before the status quo was insufficient and we really need to think about how we can make the economy work for all of us, not just some of us. What this program has told us and what we are also seeing in this current moment is that it is non-negotiable addressing gender inequalities in the workplace or otherwise. It is something essential that we need to do for our collective wellbeing. And the fact of the matter is is that there are skills, there are opportunities and solutions right now. Part of it is to take that first step and then also scale that up. And so when I mentioned wrap around supports childcare, for example, there’s also a role that employers can play and see if they can, you know, have childcare on onsite or provide benefits for their workers around childcare, for example. And I think ultimately what it does, it enables all of us to reach our full potential and that benefits us all.

Lama Alsafi (10:28): How does it benefit employers?

Anjum Sultana (10:30): So for employers, this is really helpful when it comes to reducing turnover, also increasing engagement in the workplace. We also know there’s quite a bit of research around how diversity in workplaces is good for business, it’s good for productivity. And so when different community members are facing challenges accessing the workplace, if you can reduce those barriers that improves potentially the diversity in your workplace and ultimately the outcomes that your organization produces. I think for me this moment, I hope for many of us has been a moment of reflection. And I think for us, we have the real opportunity to make our workplaces, our economies more inclusive. And if we had interest in doing that before now is our moment. Let’s leverage it and let’s figure out how we can do that collectively across sectors.

Lama Alsafi (11:23): And finally Anjum, what can our listeners do to advance and support women’s economic empowerment and leadership?

Anjum Sultana (11:29): I would definitely encourage organizations to start building relationships with gender equality organizations or organizations that do work on these issues. There’s a role that each organization, each of us can play. And I think it starts with the conversation. It starts with building that relationship.

Lama Alsafi (11:48): Where can our listeners go to learn more about the work that you’re doing?

Lama Alsafi (12:04): Anjum, thank you so much for joining us today and thank you for sharing about YWCA’s great work that you’re doing to empower women in the workplace.

Anjum Sultana (12:13): Absolutely, thank you so much. It’s been great.

Lama Alsafi (12:16): And a reminder that you can catch up on every episode of 15 Minutes to Change the World on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and on care.ca/podcast. Thank you to you all for tuning in and for advocating for women’s leadership here at home and around the world.