She programs and develops computer software, but there are a few things about Serena Vandersteen's job that don't add up.

"I've had experiences where I'm trying to have a conversation with a guy who's working as the other developer," Vandersteen said.

"I've asked questions like, 'Why are we implementing it like this? That doesn't make the most sense to me.' And instead of a rational conversation about why he's made this decision, he responds by saying, 'Because the way we've decided to do it is that way.'"

Vandersteen is a software developer for iQmetrix in Winnipeg. The 26-year-old said she's always been a tomboy in a male-dominated industry, but some experiences she's had as a new employee don't sit right with her.

"He could have said that to anybody, but to me it sounded like, 'Do you not think I'm on your level to understand the decision you've made?' or, 'Do you not feel like it's worth having a conversation with someone like me?'" she wonders.

In July 2015, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives published a report called, "The best and worst places to be a woman in Canada 2015: The gender gap in Canada's 25 biggest cities." The best place in Canada for women, according to the report, is Victoria, B.C.

Winnipeg fell into the worst half, ranking 18 overall out of 25.

The report reveals there are 17 per cent fewer women working full time than men in Winnipeg. And, on average, women who work full time earn 76 per cent of what full-time male workers earn.

Read into the numbers


Ben Eisen, associate director of provincial prosperity studies at Fraser Institute, wrote in November about the background of the apparent gender wage gap. He referenced a report from Ontario's Ministry of Labour that reveals women make, on average, 70 cents to every dollar a man makes in that province.

But there's more to it than numbers, he writes. Men are more likely to enter higher paying industries like mechanical engineering. Women are more likely to enter lower-paying industries like education. So when you take that difference into account, people working similar jobs earn the same, and part of the wage gap disappears.

But not entirely.

​Eisen wrote the gap that remains could be from "statistical discrimination," meaning some employers will hire young men over young women. 

"[This is] due to a woman's greater likelihood (on average) of taking time off or leaving the workforce entirely due to pregnancy and/or child-rearing,"' he wrote.

So rather than checking women's bank balances, Winnipeggers should be balancing our priorities.

Feminist mothering: growing up in the patriarchy

Fiona Green is a women and gender studies professor at the University of Winnipeg. She teaches and writes about "feminist mothering," a practice of raising children who understand the world they grow up in privileges those who identify as men. She's studied the wage gap internally at the University of Winnipeg and says while things might be improving, women do earn a lower baseline income than men. One factor for that lower baseline is mothering. 

"While there's support for maternity leave, they're not earning an income as if they're in the workplace," Green says.

"They're not in the position to develop in the same way because they're absent. And it's common sense. It's not that it's sexist. That would happen to a man as well. But the fact is, socially, we expect women to stay home with children more than men."

Green says employers need to recognize the value of family and the great amount of work parents put into theirs. From that, organizations would adjust how they compensate people because they would understand the work outside of the company. Universal childcare, she said, would help make things easier for mothers who are feeling the tug between family and work successes.

"I would say we live in a society that does not value children," she says.

'Racism is healthy and unfortunately rampant in Winnipeg'

Things get worse if you're not a white woman. 

"It's important to recognize the intersection of not only gender but ethnicity and race and abilities come into play, too," she said.

"If you're an aboriginal woman working in Winnipeg, chances are you're going to be [paid] even less than a Euro-Canadian woman working in Winnipeg — partly because I would say racism is healthy and unfortunately rampant in Winnipeg."

The voluntary 2011 National Household Survey reveals the employment rate for aboriginal people across Canada is at 63 per cent. That's 13 per cent lower than the non-aboriginal population's 76 per cent.

Add in the gender gap, and Green said indigenous women have it the worst in this city.

"There's a reluctance to hire indigenous women over non-indigenous women," she said. "But the jobs aboriginal women are hired in are lower paying jobs to begin with. So they're not necessarily high-level professional positions."

'Because it's 2015'

The first Canadian federal election all three major parties (Liberal, Conservative and NDP) had a woman as the campaign chair was in 2015. Canadians voted 88 women in as their members of Parliament, bringing female representation in the House of Commons to 26 per cent.

A one per cent increase from 2011.

Some things have improved for women in Parliament, but that success hasn't necessarily trickled down to lower levels of government.

In Winnipeg's 2014 municipal election, there were only two female candidates for mayor, and nine female candidates — out of 59 — for city councillor.

Andrea Rounce is an associate professor and director in the faculty of political studies at the University of Manitoba. She said women are still fighting for equal public perception in politics, despite 100 years as provincial voters.

"We have seen some political parties take action to say we're not short of high-profile, talented women in this country," she said.

"That being said, we still see many candidates going into non-winnable seats. The question is how many of them are women?"

Andrea Rounce

Dr. Andrea Rounce speaks to a group of women at the Manitoba Women’s Advisory Council’s seminar called “Because it’s 2015: Why we’re still talking about women in politics.” (Samantha Samson)

The idea is that some women are just put as "warm bodies" into seats that aren't winnable, says Rounce. 

That means there might be more female candidates, but not all are taken seriously.

​Rounce says she believes "this isn't just a woman problem," and teaching young people about equality in politics — and what to do when you get there — is what's going to change the game.

"Have women talk about what it means to run, what it means to lose — because everyone in politics loses at some point — but also what it means to win," she said. 

Doubt building up

If there's one thing women need to learn how to re-negotiate, it's their sense of belonging, according to Vandersteen.

The imposter syndrome is, according to ex-journalist and associate director of inHOUSE Communications Kirsty Walker, the idea that "despite external evidence of their competence, they are flawed and do not deserve the success they achieved."

For Vandersteen, she started doubting herself in university when it really sunk in she was in a male-dominated industry.

"As much as I tried to be confident and try to prove people wrong, every once in a while, it gets to you," she said.

"So you have this threshold until you're like, 'oh man, am I really here doing this? Maybe I would be more productive somewhere else.'"

​Vandersteen said as she went through computer science at the University of Manitoba, she noticed fewer women in her classes. She said that might be because women haven't had a lot of experience with technology before university, and the heavy technical material can be incredibly intimidating. Even though she had four years of engineering classes behind her, Vandersteen said she still felt out of place.

"You start to doubt yourself because you don't have support from people like you," she said.

"I didn't have any more than two female friends in computer science. Not having support and not being 'normal,' the way that people treat you — it just starts to make you feel like you don't belong. So maybe you should start finding something you'd feel better with because everything is so stacked against you."

Lean in vs barge in

The feminist movement to "lean in," suggests women need to simply try harder, and put themselves out into the professional world. But the idea that gender equality will naturally happen over time if women were to only "lean in" is lazy thinking, according to Green. 

"We can't be complacent. Women often work harder and are more productive for less pay because they're constantly having to prove themselves worthy of the division," she said.

"It has to change at the family level, the educational level, the religious or spiritual level. It has to change with employers, government, social services, sports teams — everywhere."

​Vandersteen says while she hasn't had to face the gender wage gap yet, she's already joining women's groups to dissolve stigmas and give young women the chance to never see one. 

​Vandersteen is part of the Ladies Learning Code organization that teaches girls as young as six how to write code for websites and introduces them to technology. While she said she feels empowered by this, she knows she'll still be hearing "because that's the way it is," for a while.

And in the short-term, that doesn't seem to bother her.

"I almost thrive off of the fact that people underestimate me because it makes me want to prove them wrong," Vandersteen said.

"I know that a lot of women feel like they shouldn't have to prove themselves, and I don't really like the fact that I have to, but the situation is what it is today. It's not going to get better unless we keep working on it. How else are you going to start to break down barriers, right?"

This article also appeared in the Community News Commons.