God or Jezebel

The historicization of women’s pain

God or Jezebel

Christian history is starred with women mystics in various states of ecstasy and agony. Particularly prominent in the twelfth and thirteenth-century mystical movement in Western Europe, women’s mysticism was characterized by the primacy of the body as a site of connection to God.

With limited access to theological education and little ecclesiastical authority, women’s sense of religion was necessarily more physical than men’s. The association of women with the flesh also endowed them with certain spiritual privileges; texts about medieval women saints highlight their “physical identification with Christ’s humanity and Passion as a function of their femaleness, which was assumed to predispose their bodies to be, like his, loci of nurture and suffering.”

As such, for women to transcend their natural limitations, they must transcend or control their bodies. Mystical women remained virgins throughout their lives or returned to celibacy after a period of sexual activity — perhaps a marriage — because chastity was seen as a sign of spiritual value.

They also often inflicted themselves with crippling pain. Take, for example, Beatrice of Ornacieux (1260–1303) driving nails through her palms, Dorothy of Montau (1347–1394) contorting her body to hang like a cross, or Serafina of San Gimignano (1238–1253) exalting her own paralysis.

Last winter, I grew quietly obsessed with these women. The aesthetics of their self-mortification fascinated me; the reproductions of their pain — in paintings, drawings, or narratives — blinked wetly from my laptop screen, ready for adoration.

What is it that Susan Sontag said about regarding the pain of others? That there is no grand ‘we’ involved in engaging images of suffering. So this is about me, not you. And yes, fine, these women weren’t photographed; there was no photography yet to immortalize them. But now they’re on my laptop and they look like a picture. What makes a picture if not a border and what makes a border if not a caption. So what is it again that Maggie Nelson said about The Art of Cruelty? That it sucks at the viewer.

In most religious traditions, mystics — those with a special connection to the divine — hold a particularly potent kind of authority: the ability to declare a state of exception, to challenge dogma from within. As such, their presence may endanger the authority of the religious institution to which they claim membership.

Some individuals theorize that women mystics used extreme mortification to demonstrate the authenticity of their experiences. To prove they were not just crazy. Yet, women mystics engaged with suffering for a variety of interior reasons far beyond proving their spiritual legitimacy. They suffered in the image of Christ, for Christ, to renounce the mundanity of the world which bound them. Esther Cohen terms this as ‘filopassionism’ — the search for pain in order to imitate Christ.

Teresa of Avila (1515–1582) asked God to strike her with suffering. Her petition wasn’t necessarily corporeal. Spiritual pain afflicts the soul as well as the body. Psychic distress rots from the eyes-in, which anyone with a smartphone knows. Teresa of Avila wrote in her autobiography — now available for purchase from a baldheaded creep online — “I desire to suffer, Lord, because Thou didst suffer.”

She also feared her own weakness: the very real possibility that she could not withstand the suffering required to love God and atone for her sins. Teresa recorded that “just being a woman is enough for my wings to fall off.” Later, she came to believe that God does not send more suffering than what one is able to bear. This thought was a great comfort to her. I read this in February and looked around at my empty apartment.

We — the collective unknowable we — maintain a salacious interest in and discomfort with women who violate themselves. Women’s confessional literature abounds. Entire websites are dedicated to narrative reproductions of women’s pain. Maybe the whole internet is about it. The physical sites of this, the women who share their stories, might get 50 or 75 bucks in return for 500 words on the worst experiences of their lives. They mortify themselves online. Perhaps this is an attempt to demonstrate the authenticity of their experiences, the rawness of womanhood or whatever. But who does this serve? God? No — Jezebel.com!

One scholar wrote that although Teresa finds fulfillment and self‐actualization through suffering and the surrender of her will, “such practices entail the substantial risk of total self‐annihilation.”

Now, I know that it is not fashionable to talk about women’s suffering without dismay. To secular readers, the maceratory practices of these medieval women seem obscene. Moreover, the political subject of the feminist lens — which has been fitted into our cultural mainstream, you can’t deny — remains, in the words of Saba Mahmood, “a liberatory one, whose agency is conceptualized on the binary model of subordination and subversion.”

We want our women to be victims of pain. We want our women to suffer under the hands of others. But we also must question the normative nature of that which we may hope to encounter in history.

Many contemporary feminists look for and feel affirmed by women of the past who ‘smashed the patriarchy’ in palatable ways. We can put their delicate little faces on tote bags and mugs, embroider them on t-shirts and charge for the privilege. However, as the lives of these Christian mystics demonstrate, the agency of women lies not only in how they can resist norms, but also in the various ways they may inhabit them.

Disclosure: Kate Reeve previously served as Volume 139 Features Editor of The Varsity.

Women’s empowerment must inform our vote next month

Liberals, NDP, and Greens do better than the Conservatives on abortion

Women’s empowerment must inform our vote next month

Content warning: discussions of sexual assault.

It’s 2019, and Canadians expect their government to take a strong stance on empowering women and girls. After all, in a society that is based on equal opportunity, it is only fair that women are treated equitably. This is the bare minimum that Canadians expect from their leaders. However, when it comes to policy, some parties exceed expectations. Others don’t even meet it. It is important to be aware of each party’s policies ahead of the federal election.

To start, the Liberal Party has engaged with women’s rights on both the domestic and international fronts. On the domestic side, the Liberals have made it very clear that they will not re-open the abortion debate and that the entire caucus supports a person’s right to choose. The party is particular in that it has applied feminism in its foreign policy as well.

For the past four years, Justin Trudeau’s government has been championing what it has dubbed the “Feminist International Assistance Policy.” Some initiatives include support of educational opportunities in areas where girls are less likely to go to school and increased economic independence among women.

Another initiative confronts humanitarian crises by focusing on factors that specifically affect women and girls. When it comes to the issue of forced displacement, women and girls at times also deal with the trauma of being sexually exploited or trafficked, in addition to the trauma of fleeing a war zone.

To combat this, the federal government has dedicated a portion of its humanitarian assistance to providing psychosocial support and sexual health services to women abroad. These initiatives are part of Trudeau’s record, however, there have not been any recent policy proposals on this issue during the current federal campaign.

The New Democratic Party (NDP) has adopted an intersectional view of feminism by taking into account the lived experiences of women. Party members often speak to the fact that Indigenous women are overrepresented in prisons in comparison to the rest of the population. On top of that, the NDP always brings the issue of socioeconomic class into the conversation.

In a statement released during Gender Equality Week last year, the NDP also expressed its concern over how older women are disproportionately trapped in poverty. Additionally, the NDP has also committed itself to a health care plan that fully covers contraceptives and abortion.

Apart from providing this coverage, the NDP has yet to outline any policy plans that would combat the concerns mentioned above.

In its platform, the Green Party has indicated a number of pro-women policies, such as access to safe abortion services, eliminating violence against women, girls, and gender-diverse people, and universal child care.

However, though the Greens maintain that the abortion debate has been closed in Canada, party leader Elizabeth May has also recently came out saying that she would not prevent another Green Party member from re-opening the debate. She later clarified that she would screen out candidates who move to re-open the debate. Such confusion is not new for May; she has previously been linked to controversial remarks about abortion. 

The Conservative Party has yet to provide any policy proposals, and leader Andrew Scheer hasn’t clarified some of his more problematic views. This May, a handful of Conservative MPs attended the March for Life anti-choice rally.

While Scheer has said that a Conservative government would not re-open the abortion debate, he nonetheless offered no serious repercussions for the MPs who attended the rally. There is doubt on whether Scheer is willing to discipline MPs who want to see this debate reopened.

This also leaves doubts as to how a Conservative government would promote international development in the area of reproductive health. Will Scheer simply watch as women and girls — and other people with active uteruses — in vulnerable areas continue to experience inadequate access to reproductive health care? One can only assume that would be the case.

While they want to give new tax credits to parents, the Conservative Party also lists the names of noteworthy conservative women in Canadian history on its website. The purpose of this page is to attack the party’s critics for making the assumption that the Conservative party is composed only of “old white men.”

Instead of putting out bold policy proposals that could advance feminism, the Conservatives have opted to prove its critics wrong by listing every noteworthy conservative women that once existed. If the Conservatives want to convince anyone that their party is inclusive, they should probably propose bold policies that would advance the rights of women in this country.

At the end of the day, the Liberals have set a high bar for how a federal government should empower women and girls. Both they and the NDP stand out for their unique and bold approaches to tackling this issue.

The Liberals are looking at empowering women and girls both at home and around the world. The New Democrats are committed to lifting up women by taking into account their lived experience. Their approach crosses lines by taking into account socioeconomic factors that could halt women’s success. The Greens, although marked by controversy at times, also seek to invest in women.

However, the same cannot be said of the other side of the spectrum. The Conservative Party in particular stands out for not addressing women’s rights in this election. Keeping in mind that women make up about half of the population, this is absolutely absurd. The bare minimum has not been met.

Aiman Akmal is a third-year International Relations student at Trinity College.

Disclosure: Akmal has been a member of the Ontario Young Liberals since 2015 and a member of the University of Toronto Young Liberals since 2017. 

Editor’s Note (September 30, 10:21 PM): This article has been updated to include a disclosure of the author’s political affiliations.

Editor’s Note (October 5, 5:00 PM): A previous version of this article indicated that the Green Party had not yet presented any specific policy proposals with regard to women’s empowerment. The article has been updated to reflect some of the Green Party’s proposals. The Varsity regrets this error.

“Pride has always been a fight for justice”

A look back on queer women's activism in Toronto and U of T

“Pride has always been a fight for justice”

On the corner of Bloor and Brunswick you can see a three-storey, nondescript, red-bricked building. A Rexall occupies its lower level, while a walk-in clinic and a family lawyer advertise their services from the top floors. 

The building was also the site of one of the most important moments in the history of queer women’s resistance in Toronto. 

Before its eventual gentrification, 481 Bloor Street West housed one of Toronto’s most famous watering holes. Nicknamed “the Brunny,” it was a popular Friday night spot among U of T students.

Forty-five years ago, a group of four women, now known as the “Brunswick Four” — Pat Murphy, Adrienne Potts, Sue Wells, and Heather Elizabeth Byer — attended an open mic night at the bar. Potts and Murphy took to the stage and sang “I Enjoy being a Dyke” to the tune of “I Enjoy Being a Girl.” They were ordered to leave, and, after they refused, they were harassed, assaulted, arrested, and charged by police for having supposedly instigated a “lesbian riot.” 

Potts was punched in the back of her head, and was later thrown down by one of the officers. Another one of the four was threatened with criminal punishment on false charges, all for having the audacity to sing.

They were ordered to leave, and, after they refused, they were harassed, assaulted, arrested, and charged by police for having supposedly instigated a “lesbian riot.” 

That same year, 13 students arrived at a U of T classroom for their first lecture of the semester. Their class, taught by Professor Michael Lynch, was entitled “New Perspectives on the Gay Experience,” and was the first of its kind to be offered in a Canadian university. This garnered negative press, including a snub by the Toronto Star, whose editors refused to publish a story on the class for fear of “[aiding] the aggressive recruitment propaganda in which certain homosexual groups are engaged.” 

The attention was distressing for the administrators at St. Michael’s College, which was, and still is, deeply affiliated with its Roman Catholic roots. Following a confrontation with the college principal — one that Lynch dreamed about for years afterward — he was presented with a choice: either keep silent or leave the university entirely. Lynch ended up transferring the following year. 

It’s important to be mindful of the fact that in 1974 — the year that both incidents took place — the legality of homosexuality was fresh in Canadian minds. It was only seven years prior that Pierre Trudeau famously quipped that “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” And it was only in 1973 that the The American Psychiatric Association declared that homosexuality is not a psychiatric disorder.

Neither Canada, Toronto, nor U of T were safe spaces to exist as a queer woman. Making my way along the Dyke March on June 22, past the rumbling engines of the flag-bearing Dykes on Bikes, the political and often hilarious protest signs, and the easy, gentle shows of affection around me, I couldn’t help but marvel at the quiet revolution that has taken place. Mind you, it’s still not easy being a Canadian queer woman: it’s hard, and there are plenty in the community who still struggle. But it’s definitely easier than before, and it came about only through sustained pushback from countless women over the years. The privileges of today were won by the battles of yesterday. 

1974 was a pivotal year for queer women organizing in Toronto. Up to that point, efforts had been focused on creating safe spaces for the community, a stark contrast to the politically charged activism of the gay male community. Tom Warner, writing on the response to the Brunswick Four event, notes that it “indicated a radical change in the consciousness of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, and of a hardening resolve to fight back.”

And fight back they did. The 1980s brought with them a wave of social and political conservatism with the rise of the political “New Right” in Canada. Police officers capitalized on their looser leashes, and started regularly conducting bathhouse raids as an intimidation tactic against the LGBTQ+ community. 

The biggest of those raids took place on February 5, 1981. Officers raided four of Toronto’s five bathhouses, taking 306 men into custody on charges of prostitution or indecency, making it the third largest mass arrest in Canadian history. Crowbars and sledgehammers were used to create significant damage to the bathhouses. The community protests which began at Wellesley and Yonge the following night came to be known as the “Canadian Stonewall.” That name was well-earned, considering the police brutality and the fact that over 300 arrests were made that night. 

While these raids disproportionately affected gay men, queer women also had a strong presence at the protests and felt, more than ever, the need to create a strong resistance.

Moreover, while transgender people were visible participants in both the protests and in the community, activists and legislative reformers only started to focus on trans-specific issues around the mid-1990s, following increased pressure for change. 

Just a few months after the raids, Lesbians Against the Right (LAR) was born at the 519 Community Centre. As its name suggests, LAR was primarily intended to counter the rise of right-wing social conservatism. Unlike previous groups, LAR was a political entity first and a community space second. Its primary goal was to “organize lesbians autonomously from other movements and to bring [their] lesbian feminist politic to the gay, feminist, union, anti-imperialist and other movements for social change.” 

On October 17, 1981, LAR, in conjunction with other queer organizations, held Toronto’s first lesbian march. The Dykes In the Streets March saw around 350 women march down Yonge street, chanting slogans like “look over here, look over there, Lesbians are everywhere!” and “we are the D-Y-K-E-S” over and over. A pamphlet published after the march described it as “magical. Nobody wanted to disperse.”

The march passed by important lesbian landmarks around Toronto, but it culminated at Old City Hall. This was a strategic choice. An article written for The Body Politic, Canada’s first, and, at the time, most prominent LGBTQ+ publication, said that the final stop was meant to highlight lesbian resistance to “police harassment, lesbian solidarity with gay men on the bath raids protest, child custody cases of lesbian mothers and the exclusion of lesbians from the Ontario Human Rights Code.”

The LAR closed in 1983, and the Dykes In the Streets March only lasted a year. It was not until 1996 that the first annual Toronto Dyke March took place. However, the 1981 march was an important acknowledgement of the frustration of queer women, and a striking, bold moment of resistance. 

UTSU celebrating in the Toronto Pride Parade. DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

The LGBTQ+ community at U of T was not spared from the roiling waters of 1981. Two weeks after the bathhouse raids, Gays at the University of Toronto (GAUT) organized U of T’s first Gay Awareness Week. Events included self-defence classes, a seminar on sexual choice, and a dance party at The Buttery — “Dance your buns off,” suggested the advertisement for the event. Though there is no current Gay Awareness Week at U of T, LGBTQ+ organizations around campus still host many diverse events, aimed more at members of the community rather than those outside of it.

The most disturbing backlash was a “jeans-burning,” in which jeans were lit up and tied to a signpost by students in what The Body Politic described as an “eerie imitation of KKK cross burnings.” 


The event that attracted the most attention was Gay Jeans Day. The GAUT spread pamphlets around campus reading “If you are gay, or support gay rights, wear jeans this Thursday.” 

This induced extreme reactions. Engineering students threw shredded computer cards from a balcony onto GAUT members staffing an information booth. Displays were vandalized, and eggs were thrown at windows and tables. The most disturbing backlash was a “jeans-burning,” in which jeans were lit up and tied to a signpost by students in what The Body Politic described as an “eerie imitation of KKK cross burnings.” 

In an interview with U of T Magazine, Dan Healey, the head of GAUT and one of the event organizers, did not seem to recall such extremes, saying that, “the occasional egg was thrown at the table, but people generally were polite.” GAUT even received student union funding, as eloquently noted in a Varsity article titled “Gays Get SAC Support.” 

Efforts, of course, continued throughout the years. U of T started the Positive Space campaign in 1995, which is now responsible for the small rainbow stickers that adorn many university doors. The Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Trans People of U of T organization was formed, followed by the establishment of Canada’s first LGBTQ Resources & Programs office. 

In the broader community, the City of Toronto officially recognized Pride Day in 1991. The first openly lesbian Member of Parliament was elected in 2001, and, four years later, Canada sanctioned same-sex marriage nationwide, becoming the fourth country to do so.

Last Saturday, after meandering past stalls selling overpriced rainbow suspenders, temporary tattoos, and dildos of all shapes and colours, and noting the conspicuous lack of a Progressive Conservative presence against colourful booths from the other three major political parties, I planted my feet in front of the small stage that marked the Dyke March’s starting point.

Following some awkward maneuvering of my camera, recorder, and notebook — “sorry!” I whispered to the couple who kindly smiled at my fumbling — four women took to the stage. A surprising combination of an imam, a lay cantor, an Ojibwe spiritual leader, and a pastor, each spoke of, and for, acceptance of queer women in their respective congregations. 

Toward the end of her speech, Imam Teresa Rogers said that “pride has always been a fight for justice.” Scattered applause rang out from the crowd. I think that, looking at queer history in Toronto, this rings true. Queer women activism is not about anger, though it is at times angry. It’s not a privilege, as those who, for some inexplicable reason, want a straight pride may argue. It’s about being able to freely be, without fear or prosecution, and that, in my opinion, is true justice. 

Federal government announces $2.4 million investment in women’s organizations

Endowment to be distributed to five organizations to advance gender equality

Federal government announces $2.4 million investment in women’s organizations

The federal government will be donating a $2.4 million endowment to support five women’s organizations in the Davenport neighbourhood, as a part of the Department for Women and Gender Equality’s Capacity-building Fund.

Davenport MP Julie Dzerowicz, who presented the investment on May 3 on behalf of the Minister for Women and Gender Equality, said that its aims are to “help [women’s] organizations attract and retain talented leaders, to digitize critical data, to improve fundraising, and to ultimately support long-term planning through the availability of sustainable and predictable financial support.”

The press conference was hosted at Sistering, a drop-in centre for homeless or precariously housed women, which is set to receive $203,270 over five years as a part of the endowment.

Other organizations that will receive funding include the Dandelion Initiative, a project run by survivors of sexual assault and violence to tackle gender-based violence; South Asian Women’s Centre (SAWC), which aims to assist South Asian women in increasing their economic, social, and political status; Working Women Community Centre (WWCC), which provides recently immigrated women with employment counselling; and COSTI Immigrant Services, an agency which assists immigrant communities with employment, settlement, educational, and social services. They will respectively receive $740,960, $230,457, $247,598, and $980,000.

Creating “a level playing field”

Speaking on the reasoning for the investment, Dzerowicz said that it aimed to create “long-term, systemic change to ensure progress continues and women advance.”

The particular organizations were chosen for their commitment to assisting women with diverse challenges and for furthering a “strong, viable, and inclusive women’s movement.” Ultimately, Dzerowicz says that the government hopes to help create a “level playing field for everyone.”

The Dandelion Initiative will use the funds it receives to develop its “Safer Spaces Ontario: Strengthening Survivor Centric Work” project. Viktoria Belle, the Executive Director and Founder of the initiative, said at the press conference that the investment “comes at a time when we have a great need to expand and strengthen our network of support for survivors.”

Sistering’s project is expected to help address the unique challenges that homeless and transient women in Toronto face by supporting the hiring of new staff and expanding its support network and services.

The SAWC’s project aims to strengthen its long-term structure and sustainability through strategic planning and communication strategies. Kripa Sekhar, the Executive Director of the centre, said that the funding will “definitely improve the lives of women because more people will know about what we do, and enhance our ability to envision what the future’s going to look like.” This is the first time the centre has received federal funding.

The WWCC’s grant will help expand its support network for newcomer women from Portugal, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa. The funding will help further the WWCC’s work in helping women with language instruction, housing, and job training. Marcie Ponte, the Executive Director, expects the investment to “make a difference in the lives of many women throughout the Greater Toronto Area.”

The largest investment, nearing $1 million, goes to COSTI’s project. With the funding, Executive Director Mario Calla hopes to enhance their ability to identify and fill service gaps for diverse women who are experiencing gender-based violence.

The elusive diagnosis

Why aren't we talking about endometriosis?

The elusive diagnosis

“Are you drinking enough water?”

My family doctor clicked through something on her computer, occasionally peering at me through wire-rimmed glasses. I was in her office for the third time in several years, attempting to get a medical explanation for what she scribbled down as “dysmenorrhea” — severe cramps that hit up to a week before my period began and intensified during it, sometimes rendering me incapable of carrying out daily activities.

“Yes, about four litres a day,” I responded. These kinds of questions were typical. By this time, she had prescribed me a variety of painkillers, advised me to improve my diet, and speculated that I might be out of shape, despite my membership on the cross-country team. None of this had done anything for my pain, and that day, I was determined not to leave her office without an ultrasound referral.

My dad knows all too well what it’s like to get a call from me, asking him to come to where I am collapsed on the sidewalk mere minutes from my front door, cramps eating through my stomach. Once, my mother came home to find me crumpled on the floor, crushing pieces of homework in my hands to distract myself from the all-consuming pain. And yet, none of this compared to the time when I was 12 and passed out in a mall on the first day of my period, the ache radiating from my lower abdomen to dull the rest of my body. Somehow, despite all of this, I was worried that what I felt was merely a figment of my imagination, manageable if only I were stronger.

I did manage to obtain my referral that day and to schedule an ultrasound appointment. A few weeks later, I received the report: no abnormalities found. In some ways, perhaps testing positive for something — anything — would have presented me with a sense of relief, because it would mean that I wasn’t overreacting. But in many other ways, had the doctors found something, it could have been the beginning of a life structured around a chronic, incurable, and often misunderstood condition: endometriosis.

The Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of California Los Angeles defines ‘endometriosis’ as a condition wherein “the tissue that makes up the uterine lining [in the womb] is present on other organs inside your body.” In other words, tissue from a woman’s uterus can crawl into her fallopian tubes, spread into her pelvic cavity, and even plant itself in her lungs. There, it builds up, breaks down, and bleeds just as normally-located uterine tissue does. Eventually, scar tissue develops to mesh internal organs together. Not all women with endometriosis suffer symptoms, but those who do report intense pain with or without their period and sometimes even during sex.

It’s difficult to understand the extent of the pain without experiencing it, but one woman who lives with the condition likened the sensation to being hit in the ovaries with an axe. Others have written that it feels “like my uterus is sitting on a bed of razor blades,” or “like someone is taking a cheese grater to my cervix.” On top of this, it comes with high rates of infertility; for women who want to have a child, their physical pain might be compounded by the emotional strain of being unable to reproduce.


For a condition that one in 10 women live with, endometriosis is remarkably difficult to obtain a diagnosis for. Among those who are aware of its existence, this difficulty is notorious. For starters, the condition takes an average of eight years to be recognized by a physician. The reasons for this are various, grounded in both the medical and the social.

To begin with the medical, the condition’s symptoms are largely invisible; they’re also often misunderstood to be those of gastrointestinal, rather than reproductive, disorders. A laparoscopy, in which a tube probes the interior of the belly for out-of-place uterine tissue, is understood as the only definitive way to determine if a patient has endo. Due to the risks it carries as a surgical procedure, it’s recommended by physicians with caution.  

The barriers to diagnosing endometriosis are also incredibly social. Up until recently — and continuing today, depending on cultural context — strong taboos around discussing reproductive issues like fertility and menstruation have discouraged women from being open about their experiences. The consequences of this include reduced knowledge on the severity of symptoms, as well as increased difficulty for professionals to construct diagnoses. Compounding this is the physicians’ response to endometriosis symptoms. Suffering extreme period pain has been normalized to the extent that many health care providers won’t investigate it further. Instead, women are told to take painkillers — as I was — and to wait it out.

Beyond this, there’s a well-recognized trend demonstrating that health care professionals take women’s pain less seriously than men’s. Experts acknowledge that women endure and declare pain more frequently and of greater intensity, but they are less likely to receive sufficient treatment for symptoms. Researchers Diane Hoffmann and Anita Tarzian of the University of Maryland found that gender bias prompts physicians to dismiss a woman’s pain, unless there is an explicit, objective reason not to. In other words, women detailing their pain are perceived as sensitive or hysterical, and are at risk of having physical ailments attributed to psychiatric conditions.

At different intersections, this difficulty is only exacerbated. Endometriosis is perceived to be a white woman’s condition, and women of colour suffer the consequences of this. “The symptoms present the same way, but the complaints that women of color bring to a provider aren’t taken as seriously sometimes, and they aren’t properly diagnosed,” Oluwafunmilola Bada, Associate Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Howard University, told SELF Magazine.

Even if a diagnosis is obtained, there is no real cure for the condition as surgeries to remove the uterus and ovaries aren’t always effective, and pain can flare back up when temporary treatments are halted. Living with endometriosis is a daily affair that is drawn out over years. As sufferer and advocate Lara Parker put it, “chronic pain means chronic.” Living with a long-term condition, especially one that is so misunderstood, can bleed into all aspects of an individual’s life, with implications for their mental health, family, relationships, and career.

Endometriosis is slowly gaining ground in terms of awareness, which will hopefully prompt improvements in the way that it is addressed. Celebrities like Halsey and Tia Mowry have been vocal about their experiences; Girls Lena Dunham has also been transparent about her diagnosis. As a result, it’s not as obscure as it was 10 years ago. However, the persisting difficulty that women face when trying to have their pain understood, their health conditions recognized, and their symptoms managed can be incredibly damaging. It compromises their quality of life as well as the integrity of the health care system, which professes to serve everyone equally but far to go before this becomes evident in practice.

U of T leaders, Consul-General of Japan on the processes of “Mentoring Women Leaders”

Rotman hosts panel discussion on women as leaders in the workplace

U of T leaders, Consul-General of Japan on the processes of “Mentoring Women Leaders”

On International Women’s Day, the Faculty of Arts and Science and the Rotman Faculty of Management co-hosted “Mentoring Women Leaders,” a symposium featuring discussions on leadership, the value of mentoring, and the importance of building inclusive spaces for gender minorities.

In Rotman’s Desautels Hall, the event commenced with a keynote speech delivered by U of T Chancellor Rose Patten, followed by a panel discussion with three speakers: Kelly Hannah-Moffat, U of T’s Vice-President Human Resources & Equity; Rachel Silvey, the Richard Charles Lee Director of the Asian Institute at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy; and Takako Ito, the Consul-General of Japan in Toronto.

In her speech, Patten said that the century that we have celebrated International Women’s Day has been a century of “opportunity to celebrate the central role that women have played internationally and in countries around the world in the advancement of peace and justice.”

What does good leadership actually look like?

Before mentorship comes leadership. Mentorship can only exist if leaders allow it to; mentorship can only operate effectively and as intended if leaders allow it to. Throughout her career, Patten noticed the flaws resulting from assuming that leadership is timeless. Context and conditions, she said, need to be recognized, understood, and translated into what is important for the given moment.

“Leadership is not timeless,” she said. “It has shelf-life.”

Hannah-Moffat added that women in leadership introduce the necessary diversity of perspectives to address the increasing complexity of today’s problems.

“Here at the University of Toronto, we recognize this, and we embody this, and we have a deep commitment to both equity and diversity, and inclusion,” she said.

According to U of T’s Employment Equity Report 2016-2017, 47 per cent of faculty and librarians and 66 per cent of its staff self-identify as women. According to Hannah-Moffat, the university’s employment equity rates are 29 per cent higher than the global average for labour markets for public institutions. “But that’s not good enough because we recognize that even though we’re good with equity in employment, we have to ensure that we retain our talent. And to retain we mentor and promote that talent.”

Intersectionality, and when ‘good’ is not good enough  

Hannah-Moffat spoke critically of the nuanced nature of promoting gender minorities in work.

“To think about women as a homogeneous category is highly problematic,” she said. Women’s diversity functions along race, sexuality, and literacy lines. “To be as excellent as we strive to be at this university, if we are to embody the principles of International Women’s Day, then we need to look beyond just women and to the complexities and nuances of what [this means].” To simply make room for women is not enough.

Ito spoke to her experience as Consul-General in noting Japan’s commitment to Womenomics, the notion that women’s development and economic strength are inexorably connected in today’s world.

She said that if women are without barriers and allowed the same economic participation as men, Japan could expect a 30 per cent increase in GDP. Similarly, Silvey commented on her research on care work — typically associated with women — and work that is often misunderstood and therefore overlooked. “Care work is essential to making everything else possible. It connects the formal and informal economies,” she said.  

Hannah-Moffat stressed that these issues do not end at walls of institutions and corporations. “Gender parity, diversity, and inclusion are not just women’s issues, not just work issues, and not just university issues,” she said. “They’re also economic, political, and social issues that impact all of us.”

The importance of mentorship    

Patten referenced the opportunity to uncover both weaknesses and hidden strengths for both mentors and mentees. It is this self-awareness that paves way for better leadership with the ability to adjust and adapt.  

When asked about the most meaningful experiences of working with their respective mentors, the panelists spoke of gaining perspective, accepting and understanding one’s own mistakes, and the strength in battling the numerous challenges they faced while simultaneously accepting what is not within their own control.

Gender issues as we understand them today are confined within physical spaces. But as the panelists note, the impacts of good leadership and mentorship go beyond our university and our workplace.

Positive mentorship allows women to make a difference on a global scale.  


In the corporate world, the gender wage gap is closing all too slowly

Businesses should do more to address problems of gender parity in the workplace

In the corporate world, the gender wage gap is closing all too slowly

Gender diversity is much more than an issue of social justice — it’s strategic. It can be very difficult to assemble the best talent at an organization without drawing from a complete talent pool that is equally representative of men and women.

But countries like Canada have a long way to go in achieving gender equality in the workplace. Canada holds the seventh largest wage gap of the 35 countries that make up the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Sarah Kaplan, the Director of the Institute for Gender and the Economy at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, called the gender wage gap “outrageous” and stated that “we’re kind of stuck,” acknowledging that the problem is not disappearing anytime soon.

On a larger scale, the World Economic Forum estimates that it will take 170 years for the gender wage gap to close. A 2015 report entitled “Women in the Workplace,” created by global consulting firm McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org, estimates 100 years for equal representation in the senior executive suite, or C-suite.

A diverse management will produce a diverse array of ideas for business decision-making processes, which is correlated with enhanced financial performance. Based on a study completed last year by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), a multinational professional services firm, Canada would experience an approximated $105-billion growth in Gross Domestic Product by closing the wage gap and increasing female participation in the workforce.

A common explanation presented for the wage gap — and used to combat the idea of enforcing gender parity policies — is that women leave the workforce for personal reasons and are unable to progress to senior positions as a result. This is largely a misconception; McKinsey & Company senior partner Eric Kutcher states in a podcast that women have a greater likelihood of remaining with their firms than men.

The role of societal pressures in determining a woman’s career trajectory also cannot be understated. Women in business often encounter difficulties when attempting to juggle family and work life, and competing obligations can result in a hit to their professional careers.

Examining gender parity in line roles compared to staff roles also brings this to light. It is possible that societal pressures create limitations that result in women taking on roles that are more flexible, but less likely to lead to the C-suite. Line employees have authority over achieving the organization’s main goals, whereas staff employees provide line employees with special assistance and expertise. The McKinsey study found that although the gender differences between these positions are initially immaterial, over time, more women end up holding staff roles that limit access to senior leadership positions.

There is clearly a gap between what firms say they want to accomplish and what is actually being done. Kutcher estimates approximately 75 per cent of human resources representatives list diversity as a top priority for their companies, though only about a third of CEOs and approximately 20 per cent of managers at lower levels do the same. Since the reporting structure within workplaces is scaffolded to give more senior managers decision-making power, there is a risk that gender diversity policies will be implemented at lower rates.

Fortunately, even though progress may be slow, there are initiatives that go beyond lip service by setting quantifiable measures. PwC has set a goal to make half of its new partners women by 2020. On International Women’s Day this year, Iceland announced that it would require organizations with over 25 employees to prove they provide equal pay regardless of gender, sexuality, or nationality — the first country in the world to do so.

Many firms also participate in Rotman’s Initiative for Women in Business, which offers programs for women at different authoritative levels. The Emerging Leaders program, for example, assists women in middle management levels to learn skills that will help them progress into more senior roles.

Firms should also provide more mechanisms to enforce their policies by setting quantifiable goals and holding themselves to a greater degree of accountability. In 2015, only 14 per cent of the companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange employed a formal policy to increase female representation on boards, as recommended by securities regulators. In fact, most of these firms neglected to incorporate gender diversity policies altogether.

The path to closing the gender wage gap and increasing workforce gender diversity requires initiatives by both governments and businesses. Meanwhile, it is important for students to be aware of what firms are doing to improve gender diversity within their workplaces, particularly for female students making strategic decisions about where they will pursue a career. We can be a part of the solution by engaging in conversation about gender diversity issues in the workplace and raising awareness about this issue in Canada.


Naveli Gandhi is pursuing a Graduate Diploma in Professional Accounting at the Rotman School of Management.