How government policies can create happier, healthier lives for women and families

Sustainability Council member Dr. Rhonda Breitkreuz discusses her role at the council, and how governments can improve the wellbeing of women and families

Before becoming an academic, Dr. Rhonda Breitkreuz spent a few years working with people in crisis—first as a support worker, aiding homeless men; then as a probation officer; and finally as director of a shelter for abused women and children. These experiences, she says, ground and help guide her research, most of which is focused on improving the lives of women and their families. Now, instead of supporting individuals, Dr. Breitkreuz, a social policy scholar, researches government policies that help support societies. 

Dr. Breitkreuz is chair of the university’s Department of Human Ecology; she is also the founder of  the Global Research Network on the Economic Empowerment of Women (ReNEW), an international group of scholars that seeks to increase women’s economic, political and social power; and she is a member of the Sustainability Council. 

I talked with Dr. Breitkreuz about her role at the Sustainability Council, the role of the state in improving the lives of citizens, and the policies she thinks can empower women and families. 


How would you describe your contribution to the Sustainability Council?

I think my personal contribution to the council is to think about sustainability very broadly. I’m interested in asking: what can we do to promote sustainability that is positive and achievable for human societies, families and individuals? A lot of my research asks the question: how do we create environments in which families can thrive rather than just survive?

Sustainability is also an important theme in each of the sub-fields in the Department of Human Ecology, whether we’re thinking about sustainable families, communities, cities, housing, or clothing. Sustainability is integrated at every level.

What are projects you are working on right now? 

ReNEW takes up most of my research time. Right now we have seven countries with 19 scholars involved—Australia, Brazil, Canada, Ghana, Ireland, India, and Mexico–and we’re writing a book called Women’s Economic Empowerment and the State: A Human Ecological Perspective.

Our goal is to explore and critique the ways in which governments are addressing women’s economic empowerment and gender inequality within their countries. We’re looking for common themes that transcend those different countries and identifying the contexts that either promote wellbeing or create barriers to economic empowerment for women.

You’ve said that all of your research “asks the broad question: under which circumstances, and to what extent, is the state responsible for the wellbeing of its citizens?” Can you expand on that?

I’m a social policy scholar, so I’m interested in the extent to which social policy facilitates wellbeing for people. Families contribute to wellbeing, the market contributes to wellbeing, communities contribute to wellbeing: what is the role of the government?

In more individualistic societies, such as the U.S., and to some extent Canada, some citizens have a belief that governments get in the way and create problems for us. But policies—or the lack of policies—have a profound influence on the lives of a nation’s citizens.

I think about these types of things from a social perspective. What kinds of structures do governments create so that people can have good jobs, so they can have some protections within their jobs, and from their jobs? How do governments ensure we have access to jobs? What kinds of services do governments provide? What kinds of entitlements make for creating what I call “enabling environments,” environments that enable people to succeed vs. environments in which there’s so much corruption, or a lack of structure or opportunity, that people become trapped in poverty. 

How do you think we can start to improve the economic, political and social status of women in Canada?

We really need to be looking at the nexus between paid and unpaid work. Women in Canada have high labour force participation rates, but still experience a significant pay gap and are employed for fewer hours than men. The reason for this is at least in part because they’re still doing most of the unpaid household labour and care work – child care, household management, laundry, cooking, and so on – and therefore reduce their paid work. Unpaid work seems like such an unimportant issue: who cares who does the laundry? But this issue is central in terms of understanding women’s opportunities outside the home, and it has long-term implications for women’s economic security. 

Which policies have you identified in your research that help to enhance the wellbeing of women and families? 

I think an entitlement to child care would make a difference. Some people object to government-supported, non-parental child care because they believe that parents should take care of their own kids. But often you don’t know what a system is going to do until it’s actually available. Kindergarten in Canada is not required, but it is very high quality, and nearly all parents use it. So they believe that kindergarten is good. Would the same thing happen with a high-quality child care system? We don’t know because we’ve never had it. But if you look at countries that do have it, the answer is yes—parents will use it if it’s high quality, affordable, and available. 

Parental leave is another important policy. Governments must understand that employees have families. We still have this idea that when you go to work, you leave everything else behind. But when you have kids, aging parents or people with disabilities in your household, you can still be a good worker and take care of your family responsibilities. Recognizing this fact is something the government can support through policy. I think that the pandemic has made visible the invisible work of care within households, so there is an opportunity for significant societal change in recognizing and valuing the importance of care work.

So it starts with childcare; it starts with good parental leave, sick days, caregiving days. Having those things in place tends to change the norms within workplaces, and within society, leading to increased recognition that workers have other responsibilities, leading to enhanced wellbeing for children, adults and families overall.