Gender equity lens for Toronto city planning ‘long overdue,’ councillor says

Toronto city staff are backing the creation of a gender equity office and strategy for the city, something one supporter on council says is “long overdue.”

In a new report heading to Mayor John Tory’s executive committee meeting on Wednesday, staff have outlined a plan for bringing a gender-based lens to city programs and services — in areas like housing, transit, child care, and urban planning — while establishing a new unit to make that strategy a reality.

“It’s about how the city delivers these services, how we build our parks and community centres, to make sure we’re not building in unconscious bias,” said Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam.

Developing a strategy is important, according to the report from the city’s chief people officer Omo Akintan, because “gender inequities still persist in Toronto.”

Women working in Toronto only earn 78 cents, on average, for every dollar a man makes, notes the report, while more than 20 per cent of women in the city are low-income.

The city needs to design infrastructure and neighbourhoods to fit the needs of “men and women, including non-binary and trans people,” Wong-Tam said.

“Often we have to factor in safety in a particular way for women and girls … so for example, having better-lit streets,” she explained.

Council first directed city staff to explore how to create the new office back in July 2018.

Earlier this year, a study from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives put Toronto in eighth place in a ranking of gender equality in 26 major Canadian cities, which looked at economic and personal security, education, health, and leadership positions.

The centre noted there wasn’t much difference between the first and last place finishers. “Years of effort to remove entrenched economic, cultural and social barriers to women’s progress are not resulting in the gains we expected to see by now,” lead researcher Katherine Scott said in a statement.

The centre said the largest gap is in the domain of leadership, which echoes Akintan’s new report.

It noted only 20 per cent of senior leadership positions in the city’s corporate sector are held by women, and around 30 per cent of positions on Toronto’s city council.

Toronto would be taking cues from Vienna

When it comes to the new recommendations for Toronto, Tory plans on backing the proposal at executive committee this week.

“Creating an equitable environment at the City is consistent with our values and a goal worthy of achieving,” said Lawvin Hadisi, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, in a statement.

If eventually approved by council, the city’s gender equity unit would be launched at a cost of more than $333,000 to cover community consultations and hire two new full-time positions in 2020, with a strategy developed by the end of 2021.

Wong-Tam believes it’s “long overdue” and effort well spent, and says the city would be taking cues from Vienna, Austria — a European city long known as a leader on the gender equity front.

It started with a survey from Vienna city officials two decades ago on how residents use public transportation, notes coverage from CityLab. It found women used public transit more often than men, and made more trips on foot.

With that in mind, urban planners added more lighting to make walking safer at night, and widened sidewalks so pedestrians could navigate narrow streets.

For Vienna, the issue of gender is now a direct part of the decision-making process, Wong-Tam said, so the city no longer has to tweak new designs. Instead, it gets them right for all genders the first time around.

“It’s actually good business-sense at the end of the day,” she said.

Andrea Gunraj, vice president of public engagement for the Canadian Women’s Foundation, is among those hopeful the office could lead to “people-centred solutions to common city problems,” and help build more accessible public spaces and better municipal services and transit options.

“Building gender equity translates to better quality of life and opportunities, period,” she said in a statement provided to CBC Toronto.

“It’s not just the right thing to do to uphold human dignity and rights and comply with the law, it’s a very smart use of resources and energy.”

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