OTTAWA (CCN) — Motherhood, not simply being a woman, is the greatest barrier to advancement in the workplace, a mother of nine with two law degrees told a panel sponsored by Cardus here March 8.
“I have not faced barriers because I am a woman, but because I am a mother, yes,” Veronique Bergeron told a gathering of about 100 on International Women’s Day that coincided with the release of a Cardus study on women called “Celebrating Women.”
Bergeron, who got pregnant during her first year of law school, said she faced interviewers from law firms who asked her, “Are you going to get pregnant?”
Because she has children, it was assumed she could not make it to the “7 a.m. issues meeting.”
While she said it probably would have been difficult to make that meeting, “Can I be the judge of that?” she asked.
Bergeron was one of four women on the panel moderated by Tasha Kheiriddin, a writer, broadcaster and political analysis based in Toronto.
“Having children is the biggest divide,” Kheiriddin said.
“Being a woman has always helped me,” said Helen Reimer, who started out in sales for Proctor and Gamble, then worked for Christians Against Poverty (CAP) in the U.K., and helped launch CAP in Canada in 2013. Recently married at age 35, Reimer is hoping to have children.
The panel addressed some of the questions raised in Celebrating Women, based on a survey by the Angus Reid Forum for Cardus.
To the question: “Are women held back today because they are women?” 57 per cent of women said “Yes,” while only 31 per cent of men say “Yes.” For Canadians overall, 44 per cent said “Yes,” the survey showed.
Panelist Deani Neven Van Pelt, a former high school math teacher, mother of three, homeschooler who has a doctorate and now works for a think-tank, said perhaps the barriers women experience are more invisible and that’s why there is a disconnect between the perception of men and women.
As a math teacher, she often found herself the only female in a faculty of men. Now, at an economic think-tank, she said, “Here I am again, just Deani and the boys. I find it pretty shocking I’m still finding that.”
“Am I being patronized? Are there barriers?” she asked. “My experience it hasn’t been a barrier at all.”
The survey also asked, “Is motherhood/are mothers valued highly enough in Canada today?”
Only 34 per cent of women said “Yes.” Again there was a disconnect with the answer from men. Forty-seven per cent of men said, “Yes.” For Canadians overall, 40 per cent said “Yes.”
“We value the idea of motherhood but when the rubber hits the road, we don’t,” said Bergeron, who holds a degree in civil law from the University of Ottawa and a master’s degree in law from McGill University. She had four children by the time she finished law school.
“Oh, you have nine children! That’s amazing,” she said. “But we won’t give you a job.”
Children can be “nice pictures on your desk, but not as something we have to accommodate,” Bergeron said.
Van Pelt said she “stopped the juggling and decided to stay home” and immerse herself in motherhood while her three children were small. She said she was grateful for the flexibility that allowed them to live on her husband’s limited income. When they lost their youngest son at the age of 15 in an accident, the she was all the more grateful she was able to spend that time with him while he was growing up. She reminded panelists motherhood is “only a short phase.”
Reimer, however warned against going from the extreme of finding fulfilment in one’s career and outward success to the “opposite extreme that only family and marriage are the way to be fulfilled.”
Shannon Joseph, a civil engineer, municipal sustainability expert, and recreational opera singer, said she felt she “experienced an educational system trying to right the wrongs of the past.”
“There might be a disconnect on how we define success,” she said. “You are not the only definer of success.”
Oriented toward high achievement since childhood, Joseph said a health scare convinced her to start exploring “Who is Shannon” and what she is really interested in and incorporating those ideas into her model of success so it is more about what fulfils her than about breaking the glass ceiling.
For Bergeron, who works as a technical writer, success for her family has involved making sure they have choices. For her family, that has meant moving to take advantage of new opportunities; and flexibility. “We are not wealthy, but consider ourselves successful because we have a lot of choices,” Bergeron said.
“I see people married to success markers they have set for themselves have miserable lives,” she said.
The Cardus survey asked whether any one organization speaks on behalf of Canadian women. Sixty per cent of Canadians said “No.” That figure rose to 75 per cent among university-educated women.
The survey asked if equal representation in Parliament and in the federal cabinet is important to you. Only 45 per cent of women said it didn’t matter; while 69 per cent of men and 57 per cent of Canadians in general said it didn’t matter. None of the March 8 panelists said it mattered to her.
The survey also asked, “Can you be a feminist and pro-life?” Fifty-seven per cent of women say “Yes,” while 52 per cent of Canadians overall do. Forty-seven per cent of men say “Yes,” while 30 per cent answer they are “unsure.”