Paulette Senior is the President and CEO of the Canadian Women's Foundation.
In 2016, Paulette joined the Canadian Women’s Foundation as President and CEO after a decade serving as CEO of YWCA Canada. She is a nationally recognized thought-leader on gender equity, women’s empowerment and leadership. We talked with Paulette about her crucial work with CWF, the effects of the pandemic on gender-based issues, great literature for understanding our times, and how tights are a big help in this moment.
"We want to provide women, vulnerable women, girls, and gender-diverse folks with the support they need to thrive."
Can you talk a little bit about your work with The Canadian Women’s Foundation?
I’m privileged to be a part of the Canadian Women’s Foundation. It’s been an incredible institution within the women’s sector. We’re actually celebrating our 30th anniversary this year. We raise money and fund organizations that are doing grassroots work around various aspects of gender equality. We combat gender-based violence, support women’s economic prosperity, address skill-building needs, support girl’s confidence and self-esteem, and help girls combat negative messaging they receive about their bodies and abilities. We also promote women’s leadership in various aspects of society. So those are the main areas where we try to raise money and acquire grants. Doing that for thirty years has really been a mission of the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
One of our founding mothers was the late but great Rosemary Brown from Vancouver, and one of her infamous sayings is “Until all of us have made it, none of us have made it.” We approach our work with an intersectional lens, a gender-based analysis lens, and a social justice lens. We want to make sure all of us have the opportunity to make it, to fulfill our goals and missions. We also make sure Indigenous women, Black women, and racialized women have a voice through the work we do. Our work is fueled by committed folks like Hillberg & Berk. Companies and individuals who recognize that investing in gender equality benefits all of us, and their generosity feeds into the generosity we’re able to provide. We see these as critical investments.
What do your days look like? And what do you find rewarding about this work?
One of the things I like about this work is I don’t have a typical day. My personality doesn’t align very well with routine (laughs). I like doing a bunch of different things that contribute toward the same goal.
For example, today I just got off a phone call with the advisory committee for the charitable sector. That’s a government-appointed committee that I sit on to look for ways and means to address barriers that might prevent charitable organizations from doing their work effectively. That could be through policies, or regulations that need to be changed. I try to reduce those barriers and make it easier for organizations to serve their communities. That’s an example of a policy table. I also sit at other policy tables that develop and create plans for gender equality, or strategies to end gender-based violence in Canada. I like that. That’s an important part of the work because it’s systemic. I also do a lot of media interviews. As we approach International Women’s Day, interviews become more frequent. Tomorrow I’ll be doing a national syndication for CBC radio. My work is also about setting the strategic priorities, visions, and goals for the foundation. Making sure we’re not just setting those goals but always aligning our work towards the mission and vision of achieving gender equality. I spend a lot of time with my colleagues and senior leadership team figuring out our path forward—whether that is budgeting, checking in to make sure everyone within the organization is ok, and doing a lot of virtual events.
"We’ve proved ourselves as conveners, supporters, and critical voices for the women’s sector, the gender equality sector."
The pandemic has increased gender inequality in a few areas. We’re seeing women disproportionately encounter job loss and economic pressure, there’s been increased gendered violence, and women are also more likely to be exposed to stressful, dangerous conditions on the frontlines. Can you talk about what CWF is doing to lessen the burden of these rising inequalities?
I don’t think there has been a time like this in a long time. The pandemic has really had a negative impact. We’ve been responding to the gendered impact of the pandemic in multiple ways. At the grassroots level we’ve worked hard to get emergency funding to organizations that serve women, girls, and gender-diverse people in communities throughout the country. Some of these organizations are shelters, some are sexual assault centers, others are organizations that provide services to women living in low income. We’ve worked hard and out of that work (and our partnership with the government) we’ve been able to secure over 30 million dollars that we’ve distributed to organizations across the country. It’s an emergency response to the pandemic. We’re still in the throes of distributing that money, but we’ve proven to ourselves, the government, and others that this is a critical role for us to play as The Candian Women’s Foundation. We’ve proved ourselves as conveners, supporters, and critical voices for the women’s sector, the gender equality sector.
We’ve also done a couple of things to rebuild after the pandemic. We know that Canada needs to have a fundamental shift. So what we’ve said is “Normal was not good for everyone.” It wasn’t very good for Indigenous folks, for Black and racialized folks, for gender-diverse people, and trans folks. So we’ve created some papers in collaboration with other women’s organizations that focus on resetting normal. Instead of going back to normal we’d like to create a new normal where everyone can thrive, and work toward ensuring policies are reset. We want to provide women, vulnerable women, girls, and gender-diverse folks with the support they need to thrive.
What are the things we need? A livable wage, affordable and accessible childcare, response to community need, affordable housing in every part of this country but especially for vulnerable groups, and we need the wage gap to be addressed. The wage gap continues to be an issue. We need to address issues around leadership, and when we talk about women’s leadership we’re talking about the spectrum of women so all women can have opportunities to lead as they wish to do so.
In the spring and summer we were able to pivot quickly and raise emergency dollars which brought a lot of new folks to the work of the foundation, and then we were able to distribute those dollars. But as we go forward, as the vaccine gets distributed and the virus recedes, and we start to think about recovery—what does recovery look like? We want folks to work with us, to engage with us, to support the kind of recovery that benefits all of us, and we ask that folks will go to our website because we’re focussed on investing in gender justice. We also ask people to send letters to their government representatives to invest in three key areas that will make an impact for women, girls, and gender-diverse people as we recover from the pandemic.
"Instead of going back to normal we’d like to create a new normal where everyone can thrive, and work toward ensuring policies are reset."
Who have you drawn inspiration from recently?
I would say that it’s not one person. If I look from BC to Newfoundland, I see these amazing women who are leading the public health response to the pandemic. I am so lifted and inspired by them because it’s the first time we’ve seen women’s leadership shine for all Canadians to see, and at one of the most critical times in our lives over the past hundred years. There has really been a tremendous display of women’s capacity to lead us through such a stressful time and keep us safe during a pandemic. So I would say all those women are an inspiration. The women who are visibly leading and keeping track of our progress, and encouraging us to be kind, and being calm in their delivery of these messages every single day. But I’m also inspired by the women who are not as visible but still working just as hard because we depend on the essential services they provide that we need to survive. It’s not one woman, it's these women we see and know and also the ones we don’t see and don’t know who are working so hard behind the scenes.
Say you could choose a short (mandatory) reading list for adults in Canada, what books would you put on it? Why?
Books have become even more important to me lately. Whether I’m walking, need a change of pace, or just something to help me fall asleep. All of the above have become very important in terms of the books I choose to read. I don’t think I’ve done enough of that over the years but the pandemic has really shown me what I’ve been missing. In my organization we have taken on a knowledge-building journey on the issues we are addressing around justice and equality. There are a couple of books that we read, discussed, and learned about with each other. One is called Decolonizing Wealth by Edgar Villanueva. It’s a great book that is so pertinent to the work we are doing within the philanthropic space. And the other one is So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, which is another great book to take on now because—as the Black Lives Matter movement and the Indigenous rights movement and other equality movements have taken the stage over the past year—it’s important to take on some learning. Sometimes it gets a little tiring to be the source of knowledge for folks. It’s important that we take personal responsibility around our own learning and then have conversations. So those are the two books I’d recommend. One is about my organization and the other is really about talking about race, and not being afraid to talk about race.
Are there any great books for kids you’ve found that help introduce ideas of gender inequality? Or gender diversity?
I love this question. On our website we have a list of books that we recommend. There’s one called Little People Big Dreams (ages 5-8) that’s a good one. Another one I think a lot of girls would appreciate is Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky. That’s probably for pre-teens. There’s a good one for kids called, All Are Welcome, or there’s another one called Happy in Our Skin, which really gets to the issue of the intersection of race and gender. There’s another one called Just Ask, which encourages young people to ask the tough questions they may be troubled by. Then Girls Resist, which is about girls' activism and leadership, which are areas we work in. I also think Desmond Cole’s book, The Skin We’re In, which came out last year is always a good book to read.
If you could change (or eliminate) one policy or law in Canada what would it be?
I think it’s more about enhancing and not necessarily about eliminating, and I think [the pandemic has shown] the critical need for a national action plan on gender-based violence. I believe it’s needed more now than ever because we’ve seen gender-based violence increase worrisomely during the pandemic. Quite frankly I shiver to think about what we’ll uncover as we come out of the pandemic. Folks have called it a shadow pandemic. As the pandemic grew the issues of gender-based violence increased along with it. So I’d love to see [an action plan] in place and I know that there's a commitment from the current federal government because I’m at the table for those conversations, which is important. I want to make sure that we see that through because it’s so critical. It’s really about saving lives.
How do you relax after a difficult day? Do you have any self-care practices that help you recharge and get ready for this important work?
I find exercise is important to me, but I’m also finding it very important to be outside. I have never been a winter-loving person but this year I’ve appreciated dressing up as warm as possible and going for walks—to get some fresh air in my lungs. Sometimes I walk with a friend and we’re able to get caught up. I live alone so having company is important and being in conversation is important. And, yeah, exercise however I can get it. If I have to stay inside I have a bike that I use. When I had to cancel our meeting earlier—that was really about taking care of myself and my mental health. I realized I’d worked something like ten straight days and I needed a break. My body told me that. I think I also have to set an example within the organization. So it’s not just about physical health. It’s also about mental health. They affect each other. That’s an important thing to focus on. My day off made a world of difference; it rejuvenated my mindset. And I can tell you I haven’t done that in a long time [laughs]. And so I’m still celebrating two days after taking that day.
Are there any pieces of clothing or jewellery you find meaningful or empowering lately?
Well, first of all, I was on the Hillberg & Berk website today and I ordered a couple of International Women’s Day pins. The Venus Pins. And they’re beautiful! They’re beautiful and inspiring so I’m awaiting their arrival. But I’d also like to say thank god for tights [laughs]. Thank God for that element in fashion where I can sit down and make sure my upper body is dressed for business but my lower body is as comfortable as ever. I’m finding that very empowering because at the end of the day it just allows me to completely unwind, yet feel comfortable and not have to be performative in any way.
100% of the proceeds from the Venus Pin will support the Canadian Women's Foundation. Click here to learn more.
Writing: Carter Selinger