Hannah Bell, left, executive director of the P.E.I. Business Women's Association, holds a ladder for Starla Wilson, owner and operator of Shiny Paint window designs. Wilson is one of a growing number of female entrepreneurs in P.E.I. despite many barriers that still exist for women in business.
‘A Bold Vision’ women’s leadership conference gets underway next week aimed at inspiring and celebrating the successes of women in Canada over the last 150 years
She packed her bags and left her home in Ontario to come to Prince Edward Island, hoping to start a new life.
Starla Wilson says she did not believe she could have started her own business as window artist in Kitchener-Waterloo.
“When I moved here, I was really taking a chance. But I had this feeling that, in Prince Edward Island, for some reason you could do it yourself, I could come here and do it myself,” Wilson said.
Immediately after painting her first window display, her new community in eastern P.E.I. reacted with nothing but positive feedback. It was then that Wilson knew she had made the right decision to become an entrepreneur in P.E.I.
She got in contact with the P.E.I. Business Women’s Association and learned there is a large network of other women, like her, who are making a go of it in business on the Island — to be their own boss, to climb the corporate ladder or to simply shape their own future.
“I feel like, even though I grew up not really thinking of myself as a business owner or not really knowing that I could do that, now there seems like there’s a lot of support for it and that it will only increase from here,” Wilson said.
“I am realizing I could take this anywhere. I think that’s because I am confident about it now.”
This narrative of women reaching for their dreams in the face of adversity and achieving success will be a major theme next week as the ‘A Bold Vision’ women’s leadership conference gets underway in Prince Edward Island.
The conference, and an accompanying anthology of vision statements, is aimed at inspiring and celebrating the successes of women in Canada over the last 150 years. But it is also focused on addressing challenges that still exist for women in this country.
Because despite a growing network of support for female workers and entrepreneurs, Hannah Bell, executive director of the P.E.I. Business Women’s Association, says there is still a long way to go — notably in the workplace.
“There have certainly been huge strides and a huge movement for women in many professional capacities, whether that’s in business or leadership, but there are very large gaps.”
One of the biggest and most oft-cited gaps is in wages. The latest data available from Statistics Canada shows the average Canadian woman’s earnings are just 66.7 per cent of her male counterpart’s.
That percentage has improved by less than four points in the last 12 years.
Status of Women Canada reports that women represent 48 per cent of the Canadian labour force. Yet, in 2012, women held just 14.5 per cent of board director positions among Canada’s Financial Post 500 companies. Almost half of these companies had no women directors at all.
While there are success stories of some women making it big in business in P.E.I. today, Bell says these are exceptions, not the rule.
“You can do it, but it’s really flippin’ hard,” she said.
“And it’s really, really hard when you’re doing it on your own. So a lot of the success comes in the different supports.”
That’s why organizations like the P.E.I. Business Women’s Association and the P.E.I. Advisory Council on the Status of Women exist.
Jane Ledwell, executive director of the advisory council, says P.E.I. has made great strides in seeing women thrive in non-traditional roles.
Women now maintain careers after marriage and/or children, human rights protections against sex and gender identity are stronger than ever and a greater proportion of women are thriving in new and emerging fields.
Ledwell says the area that needs the most improvement is in politics.
“It’s tremendous that women participate so fully in the political life of our province… yet, we still don’t have democratic systems that truly represent the diversity of the population of the province,” she said. “Women continue to be underrepresented in political leadership.”
Only six of the Island’s 27 seats in the provincial legislature are female. Only two of those are in cabinet, although the house speaker is also a woman.
Dawn Wilson, executive director for the P.E.I. Coalition for Women in Government,says the problem is not with voters.
In the four provincial elections between 1993 and 2003, women were more likely to win over men. Women won 60 per cent, or 18 of 30, races in which the two main parties pitted a woman against a man.
“Systemic barriers inherit in political institutions, including sexism and outdated political structures create challenges for women,” Wilson said. “In P.E.I. parties have not nominated women at the levels needed.”
One of the main reasons women do not run for public office is a perceived lack of work-life balance for politicians, Wilson noted.
That’s why her coalition has called for changes such as the elimination of evening hours at the legislature and establishing a caregiver benefit to MLAs with children or elder caregiving responsibilities.
But it’s not just work-life balance that keeps some women away from running for office.
Ryan McAdam-Young has served for the last eight years on the Mount Stewart village council. She says she has been asked to run in bigger races but is not interested, in part, because of the social issues that women face in political life.
“Women can be judged on different things than men are in politics — looks, the type of outfits they’re wearing, how emotional they become about things — and that can be a difficult thing to take on and have negative things publicized about you in that way.”
While she did not experience any of this in her time on village council, McAdam-Young said this aspect of politics was a key factor in her decision not to pursue politics any further.
“I feel like I have a lot to offer and I want to create fairness for people… and when you think that you might be facing all kinds of negative behaviours from society that have nothing to do with what you have to bring to the table, it makes you take a step back and say, ‘Do I need this in my life?’ And for me, the answer was really no.”
These kinds of negative attitudes and barriers for women are exactly the types of issues the Bold Vision conference hopes to address.
The idea is to be a complete contrast to the Charlottetown Conference 150 years ago, where a group of wealthy white men sat around a table to discuss forming a nation that, at the time, viewed women as property.
Twenty-three women visionaries have been chosen, including former prime minister Kim Campbell, rocket scientist Natalie Panek, DisAbled Women’s Network executive director Bonnie Brayton and Hazel McCallion, Canada’s longest serving mayor. They have each submitted vision statements that tackle some of the biggest barriers for women and minorities in the country — and some radical ideas for inspiring systemic change.
“What I hope that will come from this is that we will all do our bit… to be inspired by these women, to reflect on it and then think about what is the thing that we can do in our own lives?” said Sara Roach-Lewis of the P.E.I. Women’s Network, which is coordinating the Bold Vision project.
“We all have opportunities within our own lives to make life better and to move a bold vision forward for Canada… we need to be thinking about how the decisions we make today are going to impact seven generations into the future.”
The Bold Vision women’s leadership conference gets underway at the Brudenell Resort on Wednesday, Sept. 24.
The anthology of vision statements, also entitled A Bold Vision, with a foreword by Canada’s first woman in space, Roberta Bondar, will be launched at an event at the Confederation Centre of the Arts on Sept. 26.