Gender equality and child development: Re-thinking family policy

Friday, February 5, 2010

Paul Kershaw, University of British Columbia
Guest Contributor

Forty years ago the Royal Commission on the Status of Women recommended family policy innovation. It did so because the gender division of caregiving is a primary source of inequality for women. Today, Canadian women still do not have the family policy they deserve. A 2008 UNICEF Report Card ranked Canada last among 25 countries. It shows Canada lacks policy to promote time to care personally; policy to synchronize caregiving with earning and political participation; and policy which expects men to share responsibility for this synchronization equally with women.

It’s no surprise, then, that Canada does not even make the top 30 countries according to the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report. By contrast, the countries with the best family policy on the UNICEF report card rank 1, 2 and 3 for gender equality – Norway, Finland and Sweden respectively.

As the reach of the Royal Commission regrettably faded from family policy discourse by the late 1980s, a new discourse filled the void:  one about brain science and child development.

Like the gender equality lens, this discourse has much merit. The interaction of nature and nurture sculpts the developing brain and other key biological systems, influencing all the physical, social and cognitive competencies we need to thrive throughout life (see Early Years Study 2). Countries that aim to optimize population health therefore have good reason to invest in policy that supports families to give children the best starts in life. Canada is currently failing in this regard because more than one-quarter of children are vulnerable as they enter kindergarten, struggling with age-appropriate tasks like holding a pencil, following instructions and knowing ten letters. The 29 percent rate in BC is three times higher than it needs to be biologically speaking. We know this because diverse communities across Canada, not necessarily privileged, have demonstrated their capacity to prevent child vulnerability from rising above 10 percent. If 10 percent is possible in some communities, it is possible anywhere.

Notwithstanding its value, the Achilles heel of the child development discourse is that it invited Canadians to focus on children, apart from their adult caregivers. And we did. The National Children’s Agenda launched in the late 1990s may have moderately increased investment in poor children; but it occurred side by side with policy changes that limited support for many adults, including many who are responsible for the nurturance and economic security of the children that the Agenda aimed to help.

Given this history, it is time to marry the gender equality and child development discourses when considering family policy. Colleagues and I aimed to do just this in a recent report published by the Human Early Learning Partnership. Commissioned by the Business Council of British Columbia, the report uses internationally unique BC data to calculate what the province wastes economically by doing without smart family policy that will promote gender equality and optimize child development.

The costs are staggering. In British Columbia alone, we are throwing away $400 billion from the provincial economy today, along with the interest it would earn over the next 60 years. Why? Because adult work-life stress means absenteeism costs for firms; stress costs for the health care system; and reduced revenue for households and governments. Plus BC data show that fewer ‘school ready’ children in kindergarten result in fewer ‘job ready’ graduates.

The $400 billion we waste is ten times the cumulative provincial debt in BC.  Governments, businesses, bankers and citizens therefore have ten times as much reason to worry about the lack of smart family policy as we have reason to worry about the fiscal debt. Smart family policy includes:

  1. Time: enhanced parental leave, taken by both parents; and revised employment standards regulating annual work hours;
  2. Resources: increased financial support for lower income families; and
  3. Services: high quality, accessible early learning and child care services, and coordinated programs to support parents to nurture and monitor child development.

Such policies are not just good for social justice; they are great for the bottom line.

Dr. Paul Kershaw is an Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia in the College of Interdisciplinary Studies and the Human Early Learning Partnership. He is a leading thinker in Canada about the politics of caregiving. Learn more about his award-winning scholarship. Email:


Equity Matters


Equity Matters