Coun. Russell Walker believes Halifax Regional Municipality will never see gender equity in its workforce because women don’t want “non-traditional” jobs.
Walker’s comments were made at an executive committee meeting Monday, after a report showed 71 per cent of the municipality’s employees are men and 29 per cent are women. He specifically highlighted firefighters, labourers, bus drivers and police officers in his argument.
“I don’t think we’ll ever be 50/50. I don’t think it’s possible to be 50/50,” said Walker. “The categories of job descriptions we have here, I don’t think we can get there. Maybe I’m wrong, but I can’t see how, with the categories that we have being filled with non-traditional women working jobs … because they may not want to work at those jobs.”
He said he knows “many young women” who have joined and quit the police force because “it’s not their thing.” He also said the HRM is already hiring the best people for the job.
Walker warned council to “be careful on how we portray ourselves” when hiring new employees. He wants to make sure young men don’t get the message to “just go west” or that “you haven’t got a hope here.”
“It does seem to me that Mr. Walker’s comments are out of touch with the times,” Wayne MacKay, professor emeritus at Dalhousie’s Schulich School of Law and a former director of the Nova Scotia Human Rights, said in an email.
At one point people wouldn’t believe 50 per cent of the federal cabinet could be women or 50 per cent of Dalhousie’s law school graduates would be women, said MacKay. However both are now true.
Coun. Lisa Blackburn, who was not present during Monday’s meeting, said she’s never heard Walker say anything sexually discriminatory.
“If it is a gender thing—that’s kind of disappointing,” said Blackburn.“But I know men who have signed up for police and fire and have stepped away because it’s not their thing.”
Liane Tessier is the co-founder of Equity Watch, a Halifax group that supports employees pursuing employment equity.
“I get tired of hearing these sexist comments, about women not being capable or strong enough to do the job,” said Tessier, a former Halifax firefighter. “They’re just stereotypes that are not relevant or appropriate anymore and they undermine our ability and our right to belong within these male dominated workplaces.
Tessier left her job as a firefighter in 2008. She filed a discrimination case with Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission saying she was sexually harassed and degraded on the job by her fellow firefighters.
“It is possible to have a 50/50 per cent. There are women out there that would love to be a firefighter or a police officer,” said Tessier.
A big part of why the number of women in these jobs is so low, Tessier believes, is because of the constant harassment they face from male colleagues.
“You’ve got men who sabotage your safety gear or throw you down a set of stairs, or abandon you in a fire—which Halifax women firefighters have told me in the past that’s what’s happened to them,” she said.
“These guys don’t have your back. When something like that happens to you, you’re poorly treated in the workplace. There’s nowhere to go. No support, no resources, no help.”
In the past, Tessier has recommended the municipality adopt a policy of hiring 40 to 50 per cent women and that it commission an independent report on sex and gender discrimination and employment equity. Both recommendations were refused.
The executive committee endorsed a similar request Monday from Coun. Richard Zurawski, who asked staff for a report on improving gender parity in the municipal workforce. Walker’s comments were in response to Zurawski’s motion.
“There’s a lot of misconceptions and it’s just frustrating to hear councillors speak this way about women,” said Tessier.
Apology to women
Tessier is one of two former firefighters who have filed gender discrimination complaints with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission.
Tessier’s case ended with a settlement in 2017. Halifax Fire chief Ken Stuebing publicly apologized to female fighters for workplace discrimination. The other discrimination case is still in the hearing stage.
In Walker’s comments that singled out specific jobs, he said those positions are designed for certain types of people.
“You have to be a very special person to be a police officer in my opinion. Same thing with the fire department,” he said. “It’s no easy job; if there’s a fire, your life is on the line.”
He took the same approach for outside workers and bus drivers.
“To myself, bus drivers are a very special breed. To be able to drive the bus day in day out and take the comments that they take all the time and represent us.”
Walker was first elected to Halifax City Council in 1994. He was elected to the Halifax Regional Municipality Council in 1995. He represents District 10, Bedford Basin West.