Lessons from Canada on Gender Equality

Corinna Hörst
Maja Kuzel
6 min read
The problem with gender equality these days is that we either focus on external actions or internal structures, but we rarely look at it together.

The problem with gender equality these days is that we either focus on external actions or internal structures, but we rarely look at it together. For policies to be implemented and for international actors to maintain credibility, their internal actions must match their claims. 

While speaking publicly at an event hosted by GMF, the Government of Canada, and Women in International Security (WIIS) Brussels, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland brought up two topics: Ukrainian police reform and spending time with her children. What do these topics have in common? They are both on the minister’s agenda. Freeland illustrated how the Canadian government was one of the main supporters to ensure that reforming the Ukrainian police force included hiring more women. Yet, she also mentioned how she and her team juggle her work obligations with her wish to spend time with her children. Together with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Freeland has been an outspoken advocate for diversity and inclusion — both abroad and at home.

In her first year, Freedland pushed the Feminist International Assistance Policy, which recognizes the need to place gender equality and the empowerment of women front and center to reduce extreme poverty and build a more peaceful, inclusive, and prosperous world. She is an effective official of the Canadian government, and she is a mother who insists on spending time with her children. Her gender sensitive approach to work and policies, as well as her outspokenness about the need to balance work and family sets an example for transatlantic partners.

Taking Minister Freeland’s lead, policymakers implementing gender equality into their decision-making should take a few things into consideration:


Political leadership is key to remind people of the importance of gender equality. Prime Minister Trudeau is a key example: He does what he preaches. When he came into office in November 2015 he named a ministerial team that, for the first time in the country’s history, was equally balanced between men and women, with 15 ministers of each gender. Many of the incoming female ministers were given key roles, including former journalist Chrystia Freeland, who was initially put in charge of international trade. When explaining why he made this decision, Trudeau answered: “Because it’s 2015. It's an incredible pleasure for me to be here today, before you, to present to Canada a cabinet that looks like Canada."

It can be difficult for this approach to permeate through the system, however. While the Canadian government has become more inclusive, only some of their staff cares and knows what to do when it comes to implementing gender conscious policies. It takes time for employees to embrace and take ownership of drastic shifts, such as Canada’s new approach to development, human rights, democracy, security, health, economics, agriculture, environment, and climate policy using a gender lens. Anecdotal evidence shows that much of the staff does not yet feel competent to support and promote gender sensitive policies in areas such as trade, economics, and defense.

Diverse Staffing

Institutions must also pay attention to the fact that as employees get hired and advance professionally, they must be trained to understand the benefits of diverse teams which bring different, innovative perspectives. They should see the potential for acting as role models for other international interlocutors, and learn to understand that policies impact men and women differently on the ground. Helga Schmid, secretary general of European External Action Service, who shared the event panel with Freeland, has made it one of her priorities to increase the diversity of the EEAS staff and provide career opportunities for women. The EU has established gender advisor functions in all Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) missions, which is in line with the United Nation Security Council Resolution 1325 and the related Resolution 1889, calling for the full and equal participation of women and the integration of a gender perspective into all peace and security initiatives. Nevertheless, women still continue to be under-represented in CSDP civilian missions, approximately 25 percent according to the Report on the Baseline Study on Integrating Human Rights and Gender into the European Union’s Common Security and Defence Policy.

Rose Gottemoeller, the first female deputy secretary general, admitted during the same panel discussion that NATO too is a male dominant environment. Despite this weakness, NATO has realized that its forces can have a greater stabilizing impact in places like Afghanistan by recruiting women soldiers to maintain relationships with the local community, to serve as role models, and to train their peers. Women in the military create success in missions because they can access areas where men cannot go, they have a different rapport with parts of the local population, and build a greater contingency of women which contributes to a work climate where sexual abuse is less likely.

Accountability and Credibility

If we want gender equality, we need a more holistic approach. While various gender awareness and inclusion initiatives are underway, as well as efforts to assess the different implications for women and men of any policy action, actual enactment has proven a very hard nut to crack. For some, it is not a priority or they do not understand what it really means. As soon as security and defense experts hear “Women, Peace, and Security” one half — men — turns away and loses interest, while the other half — women — nod knowingly. Yet, they are also left with a bitter feeling of having been deserted. While originally well intentioned, the term has contributed to women being pigeon-holed into a corner where they are seen predominantly as victims of conflict and only relevant to securing peace but not resolving conflict, negotiating transition deals, or providing stability. 

Women should enter the conversations of international security and should be at the table when decisions are made. Until their perspectives are fully recognized, it will be difficult to change the language around security to reflect the complexity of providing and securing stability in all its elements. Current security and defense debates do not resonate with women and few women seem interested in security policy.  

For the full inclusion of women, political leadership needs to support it, institutional structures need to be adapted so that both the most qualified men and women are hired, promoted, and retained, and both men and women need to make the case for its advantages. And women have to step up to the plate. Freeland’s children did not prevent her from taking a leadership role in government. She now engages in several diplomatic negotiations — with international partners abroad, with her staff about work and life priorities, and her children about their well-being.