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How We Succeed

Nine Canadian women share their aspirations and the challenges posed by gender inequality
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‘Female athletes can be fans of men’s sports, too, while still wanting the same exposure.’

Kia Nurse, 20, of Hamilton, will be one of the stars of the Canadian women’s basketball team at the Rio Summer Olympics.
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The proudest I’ve ever felt in my life was winning Pan Am gold. I feel a bit of pressure to be a pioneer. Now I’m at the No. 1 program in the United States. At UConn [the University of Connecticut], the women’s team is every bit as popular and important as the men’s, the fan base is equal, and you certainly don’t see that everywhere. I want that in Canadian basketball, too.

Sometimes I get interestingly worded questions about how I compare to my brother [Darnell Nurse of the Edmonton Oilers] that can be a little offensive. He’s a year older than me, makes a lot more money than me playing and has a lot more social-media followers. But I’ve won more championships than he has, and we’re proud of one another. Female athletes can be fans of men’s sports, too, while still wanting the same exposure. We have more men in my family who are well-known – my brother, my uncle [former NFL player Donovan McNabb], and my dad [former CFL player Richard Nurse]. People often forget to ask about my mom [Cathy Nurse, McMaster] and my sister [Tamika Nurse, Oregon] and how influential they were on me as women and basketball players.

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‘I’m not going to forget how to be a doctor on Tuesday if I take a day off on Monday.’

Dr. Aida Sadr, 36, is a family doctor at the Vancouver Native Health Society clinic in the Downtown Eastside. She moved to Canada from Iran at age 9.
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To have the work-life balance that I want – to be able to a good mother and a good wife and a good daughter and sister as well as a good physician – that’s what I’m striving for in terms of achieving success in my life. I have two kids, ages 4 and 6. I’ve chosen to work part-time, but my husband always laughs when I tell people, because part-time in the physicians’ world is pretty close to full-time by typical standards. I have that luxury, though.

If you talk to a female surgeon, you’d probably hear something different about how much choice she has about work hours. I’ve been very, very lucky in my experiences in Canada. I wasn’t born here, but I’ve never felt discriminated against because of my gender. There’s always a couple of dinosaurs who make off-hand remarks. Like, when I cut back on work, a male colleague asked me if I could maintain my skills while working part-time. I was a bit taken aback. I’m not going to forget how to be a doctor on Tuesday if I take a day off on Monday. But that was one remark in a sea of support.

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‘Concepts of merit would have to change a bit, be less based on stereotypes of masculine leadership.’

Tessa Thornton, 27, of Toronto works for Shopify, and has been a front-end Web developer since 2011.
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To me, success has sort of been paying rent. I got into this field sideways and unintentionally. So, all through my undergrad and high school I never really expected to even be able to pay rent comfortably. I don’t have specific ambitions about having higher roles, or like having different titles, so I’m mostly just interested in doing interesting work that I’m proud of and that I enjoy doing.

I’m a programmer, so I like solving problems. When they are challenging problems I enjoy them more. There are two women on my team, of 11 … it’s obviously not ideal. Women are just assumed to be less proficient, less technical because it doesn’t fit the stereotype. Because things have been so unequal for such a long time, I think true gender equality would at first, especially, look like more a rejection of that inequality than it would look like things being the same. Our concepts of merit would have to change a bit, be less based on stereotypes of masculine leadership that we currently adhere to: the relationship between work and parenthood, the jobs and roles that men and women take on and are expected to take on.

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‘My general philosophy on life is that we are capable of much more than we think we can do.’

Ellie Parton, 25, of the Wei Wai Kum band in Campbell River, B.C., is a third-year medical student at the University of British Columbia and the mother of an eight-year-old daughter.
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My general philosophy on life is that we are capable of much more than we think we can do. I have met a lot of influential people and there has been a lot of awareness and advocacy for gender equality. I had started first-year university and was feeling quite overwhelmed by how much work it was. I attended an “Aboriginals into Medicine” workshop…. [UBC adviser James Andrew] brought in an aboriginal student, he brought in an aboriginal physician and he talked to us about their commitment. It gave me a lot of reassurance that this is a real thing I can do.

People assume I am going to work less as a physician because I am a woman. That I am going to be more part-time. Patients often assume I am a nurse…. And it goes both ways – people assume the male nurses are doctors. I am strongly considering family medicine or obstetrics. I am going to spend some more time in both disciplines before I make any final decisions. More cultural awareness and respect, and being more understanding of the history and circumstances First Nations people live in, could go a long way to addressing health disparities.

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‘It becomes about judging success by your own standards and not those set by others around you.’

Zabeen Hirji, 55, group executive and chief human resources officer at Toronto-based Royal Bank of Canada.
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As you go through life, it becomes about judging success by your own standards and not those set by others around you. When I came back from my second maternity leave, I was offered a promotion into an executive position. I had two kids under the age of three. I really felt that if I took on a bigger job in a new area, I wouldn’t have the time to be there for my children. I didn’t know how the bank would react if I declined the position, but it was very easy to conclude this was not the right time. It was a defining moment.

When I think about people who have supported me and inspired me to dream bigger, it has been a mix of men and women – but more men. Men are often in senior positions. My late father had a huge impact on me. He passed away when I was 11, but he made me believe I should not limit myself because I was a girl. He encouraged me to be good at math. He took me to work with him. He taught me about his business.

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‘I’ve had so many men say to me, “Oh, how many women work there?” Like it’s shocking that I work [at the jail].’

Amanda Etches-Saucier, 29, is a guard at the North Bay Jail in North Bay.
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In terms of gender equality, where I work – maybe it’s just that I’m kind of lucky – I don’t see it as that much of an issue. I don’t think the male correctional officers that I work with treat me any differently. We all come in to do the same job. We get paid the same rate. We’re all here to just walk out of here safely to our families at the end of the day.

I think the barrier for many women, if you were even considering [entering the field] – I’ve had so many men say to me, “Oh, how many women work there?” Like it’s shocking that I work there. I get asked often if I’m a secretary or a records-keeper. That probably leads a lot of women to believe that maybe they don’t hire as many women or it’s just going to be that much more difficult. I think that a lot of people assume strength is a huge factor in this. That’s not what it’s all about. Attitude for sure is more important. I mean, negotiating is really how you get through every day: your tone of voice, the look on your face.

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‘I think men still view themselves as superior to women… I give it about at least 50 more years.’

Jashelle Robinson, 17, of Brampton, Ont., is a Grade 12 student at Harold M. Brathwaite Secondary School. She hopes to become a veterinarian.
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A successful life for me as a woman is to use the opportunities we have now that we never had before, like education and having a voice, and women sticking together and bringing up one another. So me motivating my fellow young ladies to not be afraid, to put themselves out there, and hopefully inspire someone to do what they want to do. I feel that we can speak up and voice our opinions.

But I still feel there’s some level of restrictions when people listen to women, because they feel that our opinions are not as important as men’s opinions. I think men still view themselves as superior to ​women​. We haven’t quite as a society overcome that fully. I believe it is possible and hopefully it’s something we can overcome for the future. I give it about at least 50 more years. I do think we’re trying. There have been cases where I’ve been treated better because I was female. My male friends wouldn’t say certain things around me. They were gentlemen. Maybe other men are different, but they were raised to treat women with respect and value them.

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‘You get to phone all your farmer buddies ... but I don’t have anyone to talk to about farming.’

Vanessa Mack, 36, grows grain on a 5,000-acre farm near Meota, Sask.
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I define success as creating a work-life balance with our kids. Farming has definitely given me the opportunity to have that. Success for me on the farm would be very goal-oriented: building net worth, working capital, buying land, the profitability of what we’re doing on our land, expansion. Success with the farm also comes with the ability to work with other people.

Gender equality would be to see more women in direct farming positions. There aren’t a lot of women here in the farming industry. When you go to any event, it is usually a very male-dominated world. You definitely see more women in the ag industry, but you don’t see them farming. I remember telling Tyler, my husband, at seeding: “You get to phone all your farmer buddies and talk about farming but I don’t have anyone to talk to about farming.” Tyler and I work very well as a team. I cover off more of the financials and I’ve brought more to the HR table, whereas he’s more in charge of the agronomics and the marketing of it. And we bounce ideas off each other constantly. If you have two brains, you can come up with better ideas.

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‘I teach my son Niko about how you need to empower a woman, how to support a woman.’

Elisa De La Torre, 37, is a part-time Uber driver in Toronto, small-business owner and single mom to Mia (8) and Niko (6).
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Success is not about having a great house or a great car or the best purse or the best watch. It’s more about being able to be happy with who you are. About four years ago, I was trying to buy a car. My husband travelled a lot for work, so he told me to go pick one and just tell him the price. So I went to this agency and picked a car, but the guy wouldn’t give me a price. He kept saying, “I’m not going to tell you until your husband comes.”

Three times I went there. Sometimes I still wonder about it, like why? Because I’m a woman? I hopefully can leave a better world for my daughter. This is one of the things I teach her, and I teach my son Niko, about how you need to empower a woman, how to support a woman, and how men can also do things that women do. When people get in my car, they say, “Oh my God, you’re a woman! I love it!” That gives me so much happiness, because I feel secure. And I think it’s just great that we can do things like that.

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CREDITS: Reporting by CAROLINE ALPHONSO, RACHEL BRADY, SHANE DINGMAN, TIM KILADZE, WENCY LEUNG, SELENA ROSS, WENDY STUECK, CARRIE TAIT and MAHNOOR YAWAR; Editing by ANGELA MURPHY; Multimedia editing by LAURA BLENKINSOP; Interactive design, development and production by CHRISTOPHER MANZA; Copy editing by CHRISTOPHER HARRIS

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