NWT’s Gender Gap: An Interview With Nina Larsson

At noon today, Dene Nahjo and the Institute of Public Administration of Canada are holding a panel discussion in the Yellowknife City Council Chamber to examine the under-representation of Indigenous Women in Senior Management in the GNWT. Nina Larsson, a France-born-and-raised half-Gwich’in/half-Swedish founding member of Dene Nahjo, and former executive assistant to the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, will be moderating the debate. Last year, she authored a paper as part of the Jane Glassco Northern Fellowship, discussing ways to improve Indigenous female representation in the upper levels of management. EDGE caught up with her beforehand to chat about some of the issues.  

What are the main issues that the panel is hoping to address?

Although there are three policies which have been adopted — the Status of Women Council Act, The Equality for Men and Women Policy and the Affirmative Action Policy — there is a lack of diversity and inclusion at the senior management level in the GNWT. There’s only eight percent of the senior management positions that are filled with Indigenous women.

Why is it important to get more Indigenous women into senior management roles?

We’re in a democracy, and the public service has to be representative of the public that it serves. We have a unique context here, because we have a majority of our population that’s Indigenous. So we would think in management and senior management positions the majority of Indigenous men and women would be accessing those positions, which is not the case. We want to have the perspective of Indigenous women taken into consideration. And we want to remove any unconscious bias we may have as a settler person to the North.

What are some of the barriers Indigenous women face getting into senior management?

We need to look at education, professional development, career plans and recruitment. What I noticed conducting my research is that many Indigenous women who were highly qualified don’t see the GNWT as a place of employment or a career choice, so they don’t apply. There weren’t any specific reasons given, it was more, ‘Oh yeah, I never thought of putting my skills towards the government.’

More outreach is needed, and we need to look at how recruitment takes place. We need to look at experience alongside education to be able to welcome Indigenous women who have often taken on great roles in their communities. The other thing is offering distance education opportunities. In the Yukon, they have that in place: women can take courses in their home communities. Here, the Department of Human Resources could partner with a university to offer Indigenous women a Masters in Public Policy or a Masters of Business Administration.


You also write about how child care could be changed to incentivize women to join the GNWT.

Right now the choice of focusing on a career should be made easy. A woman should be able to afford child care and have options when it comes to child care, so we could feel comfortable enough to take on senior management positions. And that’s not available in the Northwest Territories at this point. Child care services are very sparse and unaffordable. And we don’t make a point of showcasing that the government is welcoming of new mothers in a standardized way, or dads. There’s no workplace policies that welcome women in a clean and safe environment to pump milk or breastfeed if they need to do that during their breaks. Just the mere fact of indicating that could showcase that we are welcoming of new moms.

Having free child care would allow parents to work to afford the cost of living. I think that’s ideal for every country, but there are barriers to funding and financing that.

You mentioned the Yukon when talking about education opportunities. How different are we when it comes to supporting and promoting female employment?

The Yukon government has a Women’s Directorate that became a department in 1985. It provides gender-inclusive analysis on government policies, programs and services. All cabinet submissions contain a section describing the policy’s impact on women. At the time of the research they had a published budget of $1.8 million and a staff of seven, which includes one full-time policy and program analyst position with specific focus on Aboriginal women’s issues. Our equivalent would be the Women’s Advisory Office, which is in charge of providing direction to the departments and agencies. It’s composed of one staff, with a budget of $210,000.

The report also focuses on a number of Scandinavian countries taking innovative steps to address equality. Can you speak a bit about what you found?

The first section of the report talks about gender-based equality, and that’s where we have the Scandinavian-based model, where they have an amazing rate of women in management positions. They have things in place such as centres for gender equality, an agency that reviews the country’s gender-equality legislation. They have things like the gender-equality councils and forums, anti-discrimination acts, an equality ombudsman’s office, a committee on discrimination.

There’s all this gender-based analysis in place, so basically they’re able to determine ways to have equality and evaluate policies to see what is needed. Which we don’t have. Just the fact of having those in place showcases the fact that it’s a priority and a commitment.

And I understand there’s also a different model of childcare provision. Could you expand on that?

In Scandinavia, if you’re looking for employment you’re eligible to free daycare services, so you have free time to go look for work and do interviews without having your children with you. The hours of the day-homes are pretty flexible; if you have to start work at six, you already have somebody who can take care of the kids. The government makes sure communities have spaces available for children.

In Sweden, in their day-homes they make sure they have gender pedagogy to showcase that children should have the same opportunities in life. They teach that very early on, to work against gender stereotypes and assigned roles, so they free children from expectations and demands that society has traditionally put on girls and boys.

We don’t need to specifically apply that here, because we also have Indigenous nations that have their own traditions, but that could also be included in the pedagogy curriculum for day-homes.

There are a lot of recommendations in the report. What would you like to see prioritized?

We have to keep in mind the fiscal restraint; but in the perfect world, if we could have a gender-equality framework put in place, that would be great, and if we could have free child care that would be amazing. Those two initiatives would be good for women and Indigenous women.

But given the current fiscal constraints you mentioned, are there things that could realistically be implemented?

Yes. There’s a list of things that is very easily implementable. For example, the Women’s Advisory Office should create an equality framework and coalition to ensure the needs of Indigenous women are met, and they should develop a communication plan. Elected members should adopt an equality act.

Of course, any policy change requires staff being put towards that. But as a first step, we should have as much data and resources available, housed in one place so that we could start researching a bit more, and seeing if the policies currently in place are working, and figure out what else we could do to implement them and evaluate them. As a first step, that’s very easily done.

How would you describe current efforts of the GNWT towards achieving more Indigenous female representation?

There are different programs here; we have an Aboriginal Employees Advisory Committee, which played a key role in developing an Aboriginal management development program. That provides funding assistance to departments and agencies for the development of Indigenous employees, and, more specifically, it funds associate positions for up to 24 months at a senior management level. Those are always filled, and from the feedback, this is working. So how can we expand on that? These policies seem to work, but we need to know after going through the training how many Indigenous women access senior management positions. So the main recommendation I had for the committee is to have a bit more information available as to how this working.

Are we moving in a positive direction towards achieving equality?

The thing is we can’t compare, I don’t have data from previous years to compare if we’re doing better or not. All I know is right now is that we’re at eight percent. But the mere fact we’re having conversations around the lack of representation of Indigenous women is great. And the fact we have many people involved working to improve this situation is great.

Gender and Public Sector Leadership in the NWT takes place at the Yellowknife City Council Chambers at noon today. It’s free for members of IPAC and Dene Nahjo, $20 for non-members.

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