What about the squash? Female player weighs in on debate over men's-only Winnipeg Squash Racquet Club

A woman who successfully fought to become a member of a historically men-only club says the Winnipeg Squash Racquet Club needs to follow suit and drop its own century-old rule excluding women.

Club called out for depriving women of valuable business, networking opportunities

The Winnipeg Squash Racquet Club is drawing criticism for its men-only policy. (Warren Kay/CBC)

Many prominent Winnipeg women are calling on the Winnipeg Squash Racquet Club to strike down its century-old rule excluding women from the club. 

Jodi Moskal, a former Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce chair and a Progressive Conservative candidate in a recent provincial byelection, slammed the Squash Club earlier this week for barring women as members.

It's known as a centre of business networking in the province, where in November a Tory candidate held a fundraising whisky tasting. 

But another Winnipegger just wants equal footing to play high-level squash there. 

Competitive squash player Dominique St. Hilaire says the community of female squash players in Winnipeg is small and excluding women from the club limits opportunities for players like her to improve their game.

"There isn't enough women to create a women's-only club. That's the reality," she said. "It would be nice for us to have enough competition to move up in divisions and explore that level of competition with other people."

It's just a good thing for us to be discussing as a society, as a community, whether or not that feels OK for us.- Dominique St. Hilaire

The shortage of competitive female players prompted St. Hilaire to enter a men-only tournament at the Winnipeg Squash Racquet Club. Although she says her competitors were welcoming, she still felt like an outsider.

"I guess I was more so surprised initially — because I was being given the privilege to join the tournament — that it wasn't just assumed that as a squash player, I could participate in a tournament with other squash players."

St. Hilaire says she was happy when she heard that Moskal had raised the issue of men-only clubs.

"It's just a good thing for us to be discussing as a society, as a community, whether or not that feels OK for us," she said.

"And I do understand that we can create clubs and that people have that choice, but it's when it's leaving people out, that's where it makes me feel uncomfortable — knowing that I'm not necessarily welcomed in a sport and not given the same level of opportunity as men."

Pallister, Squires wouldn't take sides

One recent networking opportunity at the club was Tory MLA Scott Johnston's whisky-tasting fundraising event there in November.

On Wednesday, both Premier Brian Pallister and Status of Women Minister Rochelle Squires said they support Moskal's right to speak out, though neither weighed in on whether they believe the club should repeal its ban.

"I believe that when society is engaged in these issues that matter to women, when society is engaged in issues surrounding women's equality, we are going to move forward and advance women's equality," Squires said at an event aimed at ending violence against women.

NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine (St. Johns) said that answer was "unacceptable," calling on the premier and the status of women minister to ​"set the tone and to show leadership in respect of women's rights to participate in all private and public space here in Manitoba."

The Winnipeg Squash Racket Club continues to be the focus of criticism for it's men-only membership. 3:04

"It's 2018, and certainly I shouldn't be having a conversation with the premier in respect of women's right and equitable rights here in Manitoba, and the spaces they should be allowed to go to," said Fontaine.

"He washed his hands of that and I think that's pretty unacceptable in 2018," she said. 

"This is excluding women from access to power. It's excluding women for opportunities to network. And it's maintaining a status quo in which men have significant power and prestige in our society."

Too small for co-ed status: club

Winnipeg World Trade Centre president and CEO Mariette Mulaire says she supports Moskal's criticisms of men-only clubs. 

"It's an archaic thinking, I think. It's 2018, it's time for us to look at those kinds of situations. And maybe it's something that the club never really looked at, but when it's brought forward, it's important that we look at it and take it seriously."

In a post that was removed from its website on Monday, the club promoted networking opportunities with local businessmen as a reason for joining. It included the line: "Sorry ladies, men only."

Only men are allowed membership, largely because the building its building on Donald Street isn't big enough, the club says.

"Unfortunately, while we can accommodate occasional co-ed events, we are prevented from converting this co-ed status to a permanent, year-round basis, again, based on the tight confines of our present location," the club said in a statement Tuesday. "‎As always, we will continue to seek out and offer even further co-ed opportunities."

Barrier breaker says club should follow suit

Susan Bolton fought to join the St. Andrews Society — the oldest continuously active Scottish society in Western Canada — in 2015. Up until then, the 147-year-old society of about 300 members had only allowed men, especially those of Scottish descent, to be members.

Bolton says it's time the Winnipeg Squash Racquet Club follows suit. 

"I think that the time has come that women should be given the opportunity to network in any arena," said Bolton, a nurse and business director who now sits on the board of the St. Andrew's Society.

Susan Bolton fought to become a member of the St. Andrew's Society in 2015, which for more than 145 years only admitted men. She is now on its board. (CBC)

She says it's a positive sign the club has committed to seeking out more co-ed opportunities, but adds she would like to hear more about their specific plans.

Bolton encountered barriers when she tried to join the St. Andrew's Society a few years ago.

Some members were against having women in the society, but the board eventually approved applications from four women, including Bolton, who is now in her third year serving on its board of directors.

"I've enjoyed it very much," Bolton said, adding the percentage of women in the organization has grown more than 10 per cent in recent years.

Bolton says it's clear the "prestigious" squash club goes beyond simply providing its members with access to courts.

"It has an excellent chef and dining room, it's a lovely facility, there's lots of areas for people to meet, and it definitely is a networking arena," she said.

"There shouldn't be a shut door to businesswomen in Manitoba."

Rule 'hurts young women'

Communications expert and businesswoman Susie Erjavec Parker says a club that advertises membership as a way to make inroads in the business community no longer has a place.

She said the club rule "hurts young women that are trying to break into business in Winnipeg."

Susie Erjavec Parker says members of the men-only club who have young children need to consider the message they are sending to their kids. (Dave Gaudet/CBC)

"Winnipeg is small and there's only a certain amount of opportunities out there, there's only a certain amount of networks that you can develop," she said, noting the gender pay gap persists and a gulf remains between the number of men and women in leadership roles in the business world.

"Why are we not giving more opportunities for people to mentor and to network together and to open up those opportunities to every person, every gender, every non-binary person, to every person who wants an opportunity to grow and excel in whatever field they've chosen?"

Parker says the Me Too and Time's Up movements have shone a light on the many ways men continue to harm and exclude women and gender-diverse people, and rules such as the one at the squash club are part of that.

"What are the benefits to a club that is excluding half the population, and for what reason?" she said.

"We're not talking about a club that is a sports club necessarily on its own. There are obviously other benefits of this club, as they stated. So if people are making deals and being offered exclusive opportunities at this club, then I have to ask myself why that's an exclusive opportunity and why it's not open to other people."

'Spot for ourselves'

Bolton is OK with gender-specific sports clubs or teams, so long as membership is more or less limited to and centred on that activity, and "not when it's to the detriment of the other gender." Parker adds there's a reason women-only gyms sprang up in the first place, and it's rooted in a history of men-only clubs.

"When someone asked, 'Well, why do women get women-only gyms?' [I said], 'Because women have traditionally been shut out of clubs such as this. We've had to create our own spaces. We didn't create it to exclude men, we created it to have a spot for ourselves and to work out in a safe environment and not be ogled."

CBC Radio's Up to Speed took calls from several people Tuesday who said they were fine with the squash club not allowing women members. One caller referred to the Girl Guides and Boy Scouts as positive examples of gender exclusive groups still in operation in Canada.

But as of 2015, Girl Guides Canada revised its rules and now allows girls and transgender girls to join. Boy Scouts America allows all genders as of 2017, and Scouts Canada has been co-ed since the 1990s.

Parker has kids enrolled in both and wonders why the squash club can't do the same.

Message sent to kids

She says images on the club website show young men who appear to be members, and that suggests the rule isn't just a reflection of views held by older generations of men.

"These aren't men my dad's age, these aren't older men who you would think would have such outdated idea," she said.

"What it is it about men of our generation, of my generation, who still think this is OK? And I think that's a question we have to ask them. They have to do some hard work and answer those questions as well."

Members with young daughters need to consider what message they are sending to their kids, Parker says.

"You are telling me that you are joining a club that you would not allow your wife to join and wouldn't allow your daughter to join. Why are we not asking these tough questions in 2018 and why are these young men not asking themselves that question?"

With files from The Canadian Press