An equal society lifts us all: Reflections from Sara Filbee

3 minute read

By Catherine Waters, Senior Practice Lead, Leadership and Learning


Every year, when we celebrate International Women’s Day, we think about women’s issues and gender equality in a new way, filtering our thoughts through the perspective of current events and politics. For most of us, this year has been challenging in an unprecedented way. I recently sat down for a conversation with Sara Filbee, Research Fellow at the Institute on Governance and Public Servant in Residence at Dalhousie University, to discuss the significance of International Women’s Day in the year of the pandemic.

Sara Filbee is both a senior executive in the federal government and an academic; she recently joined the IOG, bringing with her rich experience on the issue of gender equality. “Of course International Women’s Day still matters. We are not there yet!”, she tells me. Coming from a family of strong women and a very supportive father, Filbee says equality is about striving for “successful humanity.” Everyone matters. Investment in girls and women is an investment in community and in wider society. Time and again, research findings demonstrate that economic and social empowerment of women translates into stronger families and communities.

Too often, we fall into the trap of seeing gender equality – and all issues of equality – as a competition, a power struggle between winners and losers in society. The year of Covid-19 underscores our mutual interdependency – in terms of economic wealth, health and wellbeing, education and many other areas of life – and makes clear how the pandemic has disproportionately harmed women, racial minorities and the poorest in our communities. In effect, Covid-19 has been both a great equalizer and a great divider.

Filbee’s experience in economic development supports this perspective. Economic development, she explains, cannot be separated from social development. Economic development is not just about dollars and cents, but requires us to work toward opportunity and access for all equity-seeking groups to ensure the realization of so much human potential that risks being wasted, at a cost to us all. Filbee points to the importance of empathy – the ability to “walk a mile in another’s shoes”. This widening of perspective and of understanding leads to better public policies and improved societal (and individual) outcomes. Empathy also allows connections to be made between everyone in society. Everyone bears responsibility for how they interact with others – so that, collectively, we can build a more equitable, connected, and supportive society. Collaboration, Filbee reminds me, is humanity’s “killer app”!

One of the most telling features of this Covid-19 year is that, while it affected everyone, vulnerable and disadvantaged groups were the hardest hit. The pandemic illustrated the fact that resilience– is a group competence, not an individual one. Research shows that a full 80% of resilience is the product of social structures and supports, and equal access to the resources needed to build resilience. A mere 20% of what makes someone resilient is derived from personal attributes. Thus those with privilege and economic advantage are more ‘resilient’ by virtue of their access to the resources they need, when they need them. This was clearly seen during this pandemic year.

Filbee is passionate about the wellbeing of society as a whole, and the close relationship between economic equity and social wellbeing. A functional society can be assessed by such indicators as life expectancy, educational attainment, teen pregnancies, incarceration, addictions, infant mortality, etc. She referenced the research that demonstrates a strong correlation between negative outcomes on these indicators and income inequality in a society – and in fact for all members of society regardless of where they are on the economic scale. Apart from being a profound moral issue for government and society, it is also an economic one: inequity wastes human potential, requires expensive public programs, and risks our social stability.

The final message is clear: an unequal society is a risk to every member of that society.

An equal society lifts us all.

Happy International Women’s Day!

About the author

Institute on Governance

Institute on Governance

Founded in 1990, the Institute on Governance (IOG) is an independent, Canada-based, not-for-profit public interest institution with its head office in Ottawa and an office in Toronto. Our mission is ‘advancing better governance in the public interest,’ which we accomplish by exploring, developing and promoting the principles, standards and practices which underlie good governance in the public sphere, both in Canada and abroad.

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