Gael MacLeod has spent her career lifting women up in the community. PHOTO: COURTESY GAEL MACLEOD

Gael MacLeod began her involvement with women’s groups early in her life and continues to use her leadership expertise to help empower women in Calgary. However, she believes the gains achieved for pay equity are slowly disappearing for women in the workplace.

MacLeod — who served as a city councillor from 2010 to 2013 — has been involved in leadership roles throughout her life. At a young age, she saw the value of volunteering and realized the impact it can make to a community.

“Giving back to the community and volunteering was very much a part of the community that I grew up in. And so, even as a young person I was often volunteering with Girl Guides and Brownies, or the skating rink, or any number of community things. And I guess it grew from there,” MacLeod says.

Later in her life, MacLeod had the opportunity to serve on many board committees beyond volunteering. One of her earliest experiences with board governance was with the YWCA in 1989. For MacLeod, she finds the work of board governance for organizations important.

“On boards, they often talk about tone at the top. I do think that the board on some level sets the tone for the organization.”

Work at WINS

With a background in financial planning, the concept of social enterprise was appealing to her. This drew MacLeod’s attention to the Women in Need Society (WINS). After a chance encounter and discussion during a community event with the WINS CEO Karen Ramchuk, MacLeod became the newest board director for the organization in April 2020.

“And just through our discussions, I actually saw that Gael would have a lot of life experience to bring forward and I had a great appreciation for her knowledge around governance, so I took her name and submitted it forward to our board as someone who we might look to recruit,” says Ramchuk.

As an organization that deals with giving women the tools and necessities they need in order to move forward, WINS believes in diverse leadership. MacLeod and Ramchuk share the same opinion when it comes to the requirements of effective board governance.

“I actually think a good board diversity, diversity in experience, diversity in thought, diversity in culture; whatever it may be, I think that’s how a board is best built,” says Ramchuk.

Aside from accepting charitable donations, clothing and household items, WINS offers programs and services that help with goal setting and confidence building for women. 

Training for retail and life

One of these programs is called Retail Ready. The program transitions women to work in retail while also focusing on building their competency and skill development by offering training at WINS stores around Calgary.

“Those kinds of programs enable women to move on and generate their own income, and it really makes a difference when you see some of these women graduate and are quite successful in their lives. It doesn’t always start and end with in-store sales but the skill and confidence they develop that says, ‘Yes, I can do this!’ For many it’s an affirmation that their language skills are sufficient,” says MacLeod.

Women are often stymied in the workplace, for reasons that go well-beyond their ability to do the job, MacLeod says. Societal stereotypes have restricted women from progressing into leadership roles, not because they don’t want to but because of what society has measured a woman’s worth to be.

“Some of the gains that have been made are slipping away. That includes women in senior management levels, pay equity, and a number of wide-ranging number of things that you can point to that indicate that women are still disadvantaged in the workplace and the value of a woman’s worth, whatever that’s perceived to be,” says MacLeod.

“I think when you add on the complexity of women of colour, it becomes even more evident. I think that’s an issue that needs addressing as well.”

Addressing inequalities

MacLeod had an overall positive experience with her involvement in leadership positions throughout her life, however, not all women are treated equally.

“I mean sometimes, women are treated very well but it doesn’t matter if [you] can’t access the same pay or opportunities as men in the workplace,” says MacLeod.

 MacLeod believes it is not enough for only some women to be treated equally, and that this needs to change.

“I guess it’s about being equal partners. It’s not about someone being better or lesser than. Either way, it’s about being equal partners in life,” says MacLeod.

According to Statistics Canada, in 2018, women on average earned 87 cents for every dollar their male counterpart earned. The wage gap widens for Indigenous and racialized women, and women with disabilities, according to the Canadian Women’s Foundation.

Irene Shankar, a professor who teaches feminist theory at Mount Royal University, says solutions can be easily implemented.

“If you want people to come out of poverty, we have to increase the social support we have now, not decrease it. Basic income, we need to have that more. We need to have more work towards systematic solutions to equal pay and also provide childcare, all of those things would be helpful. Because if women have childcare, women can go and find better jobs and they can also upgrade their education. Childcare is the most basic thing we can do right now along with universal income,” Shankar says.

Shankar adds this has been proven through Quebec’s universal childcare.

“What happened with Quebec is when they offered $25 per day childcare, they found that the household income went up in Quebec. Everyone did better off, family violence went down, higher rates of women’s education,” says Shankar.

More government money needed

Shankar believes fixing these issues requires societal change and more government support. MacLeod and Shankar set examples of how women can significantly influence society and better communities.

Being one of three women in city council in 2010, MacLeod embodies how women in leadership roles impact policy and social programs.

During her three years in council, she chaired and was involved in various committees focused on preventative social services, social enterprise initiatives and affordable housing.

With the upcoming municipal elections, MacLeod hopes Calgarians are paying attention.

“Municipal government affects every one of us from the minute we get up in the morning to when we turn off the lights at night. I think it’s critical that people pay attention. It’s not just about when things go wrong, it’s about making sure things go right,” she says.

“I think making sure we have people in place, that we elect people that have the capacity to learn, understand and make informed decisions about these kinds of things. These are not the average person.”

MacLeod emphasizes the importance of voting for candidates who will make informed decisions on issues that affect every Calgarian and city services.

“It’s not about the next election, it’s about the next generation.”