Droning over the frigid North Atlantic for up to 15 hours a day— often in emergencies in which a delay could result in a loss of millions of dollars—helicopter pilot Ruthanne Page delivers workers and crucial equipment to oil drilling installations 250 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. Page is the only woman on a team of 20 pilots employed by St. John’s-based Sealand Helicopters Ltd. and the only woman in Canada flying the sophisticated Super Puma, a heavy helicopter designed to withstand harsh weather conditions and equipped with more navigation equipment than an average passenger jet. At 40, after 17 years working as a bush pilot in Western Canada and 18 months flying the Super Pumas, Page has reached the pinnacle of helicopter avia-
tion. But she says that the attitude of some of her male colleagues did not help her along the way. Said Page: “I sometimes got the feeling that certain bosses were hoping I would get fed up and quit.”
Rejected: Page chose to persevere, but she says that she suspects her wages and her advancement would have been better if she had been a man. Last year she earned less than $30,000. For his part, Sealand vice-president Mark Dobbin says that Page was treated no differently than other employees and that her salary would be consistent with a company pay scale based on experience and seniority. But her applications to work on heavy helicopters in Western Canada were rejected for more than six years, even though she had an excellent
flying record and had spent $1,000 in 1978 to obtain the specialized training required for flying “on instruments”— depending entirely on the instruments to fly an airplane with zero visibility. Said Page: “If I had been a man, I would have had the job five or six years ago.”
Gains: Although Page’s achievement is unusual, the obstacles she has faced along the way are common to many women. On the well-publicized surface, the public sector and most industries and professional associations appear to have vastly improved women’s access to jobs and opportunity for advancement in recent years. But many women say that acceptance and promotion beyond supporting roles is still a struggle. Indeed, many working women continue to face both flagrant and subtle discrimination. It includes difficulties obtaining adequate backing at financial institutions and deprecating remarks from men. As a result, there are many doubts about how genuine the gains really are. Said Louise Dulude, 43, the Ottawa-based president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women: “In the last 15 years we have seen much movement in terms of equal access, but this is not enough. There are still barriers, there is still discrimination.”
One inescapable fact remains: women are still not on a par with men where it really counts—on the payroll. In 1985, for every dollar earned by men, women earned an average of 65 cents. In addition, women still point to such fundamental problems as a lack of female representation at the political level, on public boards and commissions where policies are formed, and in key decisionmaking positions in the private sector. As a result, they say, they have to work harder than men do in order to advance in a workplace that for the most part has been structured by and for men. Said Vancouver women’s advocate Janet Fraser: “Women are still not accepted as thinkers, decision-makers, team players. I believe that women are still bumping their heads on the glass ceiling, which is the experience of career-directed women who find they come up against an invisible barrier.”
Comments from career women across the country bear Fraser’s statement out. Said Doris Bradstreet, 37, senior vicepresident of marketing and human resources at First City Trust in Vancouver: “It is more difficult for women to be socially accepted and integrated into a company when a lot of business is done golfing or off on fishing trips.” Added Margery Beer, 38, marketing and communications manager for the CBC in Manitoba: “There are not the same supports for women as there are for men when they reach senior positions. It is a different relationship—there is no equivalent to an old-boys’ network. A person can be isolated.” And declared Joan Neville, 50, a Toronto-based stockbroker with the investment firm MacDougall MacDougall & MacTier Inc.: “I
still find that in social situations, men talk to me about theatre or children’s schools, while across the room they are having a heated conversation about some company.”
Token: In order to have opportunities to take initiative and assume responsibility and control, some women have struck out on their own. Said 31-yearold geologist Lauri Boivin: “When I started working in 1980 there were no women in responsible positions in major mining companies, so I decided to start my own.” In 1981 she founded Prospect Consulting Inc., a private consulting firm of which Boivin remains the sole owner. And in the fall of 1985—a year after the birth of her second child—she and two partners opened Normetal Mining Exploration Inc. in Rouyn-Noranda,
600 km northwest of Montreal. And one year later they founded Lasarre Mining Exploration Inc. Both Normetal and Lasarre are gold, zinc and copper prospecting firms that are traded on the Montreal Stock Exchange. Boivin says that she is well-respected by her male employees out in the field, but she complains that mining executives in such situations as out-of-town conferences have sometimes treated her rudely. Said Boivin: “I get comments that I’m a token woman, that I’m a ball breaker. They ask if I have any friends in town that they can go out with—like I’m a pimp.”
Naïve: But Boivin says that men are going to have to come to terms with the presence—and power—of women in the workforce. Said Boivin:
“I believe that womanpower is just as crucial to the Canadian economy as manpower. They can’t afford to harbor any blind prejudices anymore.” Indeed, Vancouver’s Fraser, former director of career development at the University of British Columbia Centre for Continuing Education, says that many students who attended her classes for entrepreneurs were women who had found that they were being held back in corporate structures. According to Fraser, women now own 25 per cent of the small businesses in Canada and are 47 per cent more successful than men in terms of surviving past the first year of operation.
Still, many people in positions of authority in the civil service and in business remain reluctant to encourage
women’s progress in the workforce. Colin Robertson, for one, a former executive committee member of the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers, a union representing foreign service members employed by the department of external affairs, has said that, in practice, affirmative action can lead to “reverse discrimination” that “flies in the face of the merit principle and equality of treatment.” And Donald Eastcott, managing director of the Edmonton-based Canadian Organization of Small Businesses, an advocacy group with 3,000 member companies across the country, opposes the idea of pay equity as “naive.” Eastcott told Maclean’s: “If women are well-trained, they are as good as men in many cases.” But he also declared: “Equality is not given, it is earned. People want to wait and see if women can do the job well enough.”
One woman who decided after 10 years that she had waited too long proving her worth to male employers is Rosalita (Rusty) Sawtelle-Currie, 42, who owns four autoand plate-glass stores in Winnipeg. Fired from one auto-glass company in 1974 because management said that a woman could not install windshields and having quit another in 1977 because the head office refused to promote a woman to the position of branch manager, she opened Rusty’s Home and Auto Glass Ltd. in 1982. Now she employees 22 people, and annual sales total about $1.3 million.
Initiatives: Sawtelle-Currie had difficulty convincing the banks to help her get started. When she applied for a loan in 1984, she said, “if it hadn’t been for the fact that my husband was dying of cancer and the bank knew there was some insurance money coming, I would have been in a lot of trouble.” Similarly, Nova Scotia dairy farmer Jane Robertson says that she was refused a $60,000 loan by a government lending agency three years ago when she wanted to expand her farm on the Northumberland Strait. Said Robertson, 36: “The interviewer said, T don’t know why a girl your age is doing this. You must be trying to escape from something.’ ” Robertson has since been refused two more loans and, as a result, has had to drop her expansion plans.
Women’s rights advocates say that there are still many forms of discrimination against women to be overcome in the workplace. But many women have taken difficult initiatives during the past 20 years. And in time, their determination will likely come to serve as an example to a new generation of working women—and help to refocus the perceptions of many working men.
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