How Bill Morneau may use Sweden's gender-balanced snow-clearing to adjust Canadian budgets

In trying to understand what Finance Minister Bill Morneau means when he talks about viewing the federal budget through a gender lens, consider Sweden's experience with the humble and oh-so-Canadian snowplow.

Finance minister to meet with Swedish counterpart at Davos to talk about gender-equal policies

Snow is cleared outside of the Stockholm Royal Palace. In 2015, Stockholm brought a gender analysis to its snow-clearing policy, which ultimately helped make it easier for pedestrians, mainly women, to move around the city after snowfalls. (Associated Press)

In trying to understand what Finance Minister Bill Morneau means when he talks about viewing the federal budget through a gender lens, consider Sweden's experience with the humble and oh-so-Canadian snowplow.

The Scandinavian country has literally taken the concept of gender-balanced budgeting to the streets.

In 2015, Stockholm brought a gender analysis to its snow-clearing policy, which ultimately helped make it easier for pedestrians, mainly women, to move around the city after snowfalls. 

The city found that, statistically, more men commute by car, while women are more likely to walk, bike or take public transport.

So officials decided that sidewalks, bike paths, bus stops and the walkways to daycares would be plowed first, followed by the main roads. A handful of Swedish cities have followed suit.

It's not just snowplows.

Sweden has also adopted a "feminist foreign policy," which makes ensuring women and girls' human rights an obligation within their international commitments. Canada's government unveiled its feminist foreign aid policy last June

Every year, the Swedish Women's Lobby reviews the government's budget to see how resources are divided between men and women.

"The thing about Sweden is they are the kings, or shall we say the queens, of gender budgeting," Canadian economist Armine Yalnizyan told CBC.

It's for those reasons that Morneau will meet with his Swedish counterpart, Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson, on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland this week to talk about Sweden's experience with gender analysis and budgeting. 

The man overseeing Stockholm's transit system says more pedestrians than motorists are injured when there is snow and ice on the road, so it made economic sense to clear those pathways first.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau talks about initiatives that will be discussed in Davos, Switzerland, to help Canada advance gender equality. 0:53

"We are not putting women over men. It's called equal, so it's supposed to be equal, which it hasn't been [in the past]," said Daniel Helldén, Stockholm's vice-mayor of transportation and a member of the country's green party, in an interview with CBC News.

"I wouldn't say that the men in the cars are complaining when they are sitting in the car, because it's easy for a car to go in 10 centimetres of snow than for women, or men for that [matter], who are walking."

Promotes walking, public transportation

That doesn't mean the merits of gender-equal snow clearing have been accepted by everyone.

"Some think it's ridiculous," said Helldén.

In 2016, the policy was internationally mocked, particularly by some conservative media, after buses and trains were stalled following a storm.

"We had more snow in two days than we had had for a 100 years. So the problem hadn't anything to do with gender-equal snow clearing," Helldén said.

Traffic moves slowly amid heavy snowfall on a main road into Stockholm from the south on Nov. 9, 2016. Pedestrians, mainly women, had an easier time of it. (The Associated Press)

Now, while Canada has no shortage of snow, it's not the federal government's job to clear it. 

But the Liberals have promised more concrete examples of gender-equal budgeting on a national scale.

Last year, the government applied a gender analysis to its budget for the first time. This year, Morneau is promising to go beyond that.

"This year, we'll be coming forward with concrete measures that are going to help women to be more successful in our economy," he said last Thursday.

Data needed

Yalnizyan said gender budgeting isn't about being pro-women but rather about being pro-efficiency.

"It isn't a bean-counting exercise," she said. "It's a benefit-counting exercise, and that's a radical way of looking at what governments can do by spending money on our behalf."

"What you are doing is actually using data and responsible government to improve services and save costs," she said.

Part of the problem in Canada, she said, is actually getting the robust data to see who is benefiting from federal services and programs.

"Part of a gender-based approach is to have a better outcome — and you're going to have to spend a bit more," she said

"But when we do it we can save money and improve lives."

​Last year's budget showed that while the gender equity gap has declined over the past decade, Canada still has one of the highest gaps among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries.

The gender wage gap the difference between median earnings of men and women relative to median earnings of men. 

Canada's gender wage gap sits at about 18..2 per cent, according to the latest data. Sweden sits in the middle, at 13.4 per cent.

"The gender wage gap is particularly large for young women with at least one child, suggesting that women are more likely than men to make accommodations, such as work fewer hours, to balance paid and unpaid work," said Canada's 2017 budget analysis. 

"Young women are less likely to obtain degrees in high-demand fields such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), which can offer better career and income opportunities."

Canadians will have to wait until next month at least before they see how the Trudeau government proposes closing that gap for the 2018-2019 fiscal year.

Canada has one of the highest gender wage gaps among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries. The figures represent the percentage difference in the average earnings for men compared to women.