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Women and the Media in Canada: A Question of Cultural Authority
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication


Liss Jeffrey
McGill University

     Abstract.  The contemporary relationship of women
     to media is discussed along three dimensions:
     portrayal, participation in employment, and
     engagement in activist lobbying.  There is limited
     information on the subject, and the data which do
     exist apply mainly to women in broadcasting.
     Consequently many important questions remain
     unanswered.  Several studies show that the
     portrayal of women on the air continues to feature
     negative stereotypes, including fewer women than
     men and fewer knowledgeable female experts and
     authorities.  Other studies report that women are
     making slow progress in gaining entry to technical
     and senior decision-making jobs.  It is argued
     that the complex relationship of women to media
     should be approached as a question of cultural
     authority.  Certain historical observations permit
     development of this point.  A significant
     coalition of feminist lobby groups, including
     organizations representing both women audiences
     and media professionals, emerged in the mid-1980s,
     united around the contention that media employment
     and portrayal are linked.  Calls on the state for
     regulatory and legislative action to force media
     corporations to change hiring, programming and
     funding practices have had mixed results.  This
     situation is viewed as symptomatic of a lack of
     cultural authority, and part of the historic and
     ongoing power struggle between feminists and
     media, in which the media figure as symbolic
     battlegrounds and women look to the Canadian state
     to advance their goals.

     At a meeting in June 1990 of the Royal Society of
Canada on women and scholarship, one of Canada's pre-
eminent women scientists, Dr.  Ursula Franklin of the
University of Toronto, developed what we can call "the
sandbox model."  She described the difficulties of women
obtaining access to the university (read "media") as a
question of gaining access to the sandbox.  The boys said:
"Well, okay, maybe you can help, but we don't want you to
use our tools."  This was okay for awhile, but maybe, Dr.
Franklin said at the end of her remarks, it is time that
women had their own sandbox.

     This is a playful but useful point of departure for the
overview on women and media in Canada presented in this
essay.  Any examination of the dominant forms of mass media
- broadcasting, publishing, movies, and recording -
discloses the fact that since 1968 women have made
substantial gains in terms of entry to mainstream media, but
for the most part women have not succeeded in gaining access
in any significant numbers to either the tools of media
production or to positions of decision-making authority
(TWIFTV, 1990; 1991).  As a result, women's experience
remains under-represented both behind the scenes and on the
screens (Crean, 1987; Jeffrey, 1989; Saint-Jean, 1990;
Robinson, 1992).  There are many channels, but the choice is
quite limited considering the diversity of human experience
and the numerical strength of women of all races, classes
and colours within Canadian society (CRTC-Erin, 1986; 1990).

     I will discuss the relationship of Canadian women to
media in terms of three dimensions of participation that
must be taken into account: participation in the media
workforce, portrayal in the media, and the engagement of
women as feminist activists.  There is another dimension,
namely women as audience members; however, that topic will
be only lightly addressed here.  I will mainly discuss the
mass medium of television, which in Canada is pervasive,
operates in mixed public and private sectors, and is
regulated.  On a topic where information is scarce, there is
more information available about this medium.  In
conclusion, I will draw together these themes in a brief
discussion of the question of women's power vis-a-vis the

     From the outset let it be clear that the notion of
power used here is that of cultural authority.  In this
sense everyone has some form of power.  However, authority
entails influence and the power to shape and persuade.  One
may have the power to speak (for example), yet this is no
guarantee that one will be able to command attention or have
access to the public sphere.  The issue is not what the
facts are, but rather who has the power or the authority to
define what the relevant facts will be.  The proper phrasing
here would be: "the authority to define what gets on the
air."  This model goes beyond a gatekeeper model, and is
partly indebted to Tuchman's (1978) classic discussion of
the "symbolic annihilation" of women in the mass media.
Feminist approaches stress the structural nature of these
questions.  In other words, the question of gender in the
context of cultural authority is not simply an individual
matter.  There is nothing personal about an attitude that
makes assumptions about a group based on common
characteristics (sex, race, nationality).  Yet the issue of
cultural authority takes us further than simply an account
of attitudes.

     This essay, then, inquires into the issue of power in
terms of cultural authority.  I will suggest that with the
historic rise of the second wave of feminism, and what Susan
Faludi has termed broadly the backlash in the 1980s among
men and women against that feminist challenge, the mass
media of communications have been viewed by feminists and
others as a symbolic battleground where the proper role of
women in cultural life is contested.  A sandbox with a
difference, oscillating between seduction and assault.  As
Meyrowitz (1985) has suggested in his analysis of television
and gender roles, the public and private spheres merge
together in the living room.  One makes sense of it all in
the household, yet meaning is framed within an interpretive
community.  This interpretive community is forged out of
one's multiple positions in the lifeworld.  It could be a
feminist interpretive community.  Gender is fundamental to
personal and group identity.  This essay will focus on
gender and not on family.  I will take as the central
question here one identified by Shelagh Young in her
important article "Feminism and the Politics of Power"
(1989).  The question is: what impact has feminism had on
the dominant media of communications?  Let's begin with a
look at where women are in terms of employment in the mass
media in Canada.

                Participation in Employment

     The first point to be made is that statistics are hard
to come by.  There are countless statistics describing odd
facets of Canadian society, but statistics on the
participation rate by gender in the mass media have by and
large not been maintained.  To fill this gap, the group
Toronto Women in Film and Television commissioned a major
survey of the participation of women in film, television and
video industries (TWIFTV, 1990).  It was a baseline national
survey, the first of its type, and thus part of the
challenge was to assemble industry profiles.  When the study
is replicated, perhaps five years later, further precision
in the data gathering will doubtless be possible.  It was
found that women comprised 35 per cent of the workforce in
these sectors, compared to a 43 per cent participation rate
of women in the paid labour force at large.  What jobs did
women hold?  The survey showed that women dominate in four
of the eighty job categories in the production side of the
industries.  These categories were make-up, office
(accounts, typing, etc.), script and wardrobe.  Women are
valued helpers in the sandbox.  With respect to earnings,
the survey noted that women in Canada earn 66 per cent of
men's wages, and this figure declines to 56 per cent when
part-time workers are included.  Women in the Canadian media
surveyed were found to earn 75 per cent of men's wages, so
they are faring better than their sisters as a whole.
Nonetheless, women were under-represented in higher- paying
senior management positions with greater decision-making
authority.  These results represent gains in terms of
access, yet despite calls for more women in media dating
back to the release of the Status of Women in Canada report
in 1970, women remain under-represented in the dominant
media of communications.

     Newspapers would probably show a similar pattern,
although there may be a higher percentage of women in print
media as a whole.  However, no comparable study has yet been
done, and an important study by Southam has not been
released publicly.  Magazines have traditionally employed
women to a greater degree in senior positions, as has public
sector radio.  It is noteworthy that the higher-paying,
higher status, and more culturally authoritative television
and film industries have tended historically to be dominated
by men.  Susan Crean (1987) has argued, in an attempt to
make sense of the available anecdotal evidence, that CBC
radio was left to women in the 1950s when men moved to
television.  A case might be made that magazines experienced
a decline following the advent of television in 1952, and
again many talented women were able to gain access to senior
posts.  However, it is also apparent that start-up
operations can provide openings for women.  In the United
States, the National Commission on Working Women of Wider
Opportunities for Women (NCWW) and Women in Film
commissioned a study titled "What's Wrong With This Picture:
The Status of Women on Screen and Behind the Camera in
Entertainment TV" which was released in 1990.  It was
discovered that the newer Fox Network hired more women in
film and television than the established networks.  In
Canada, a disproportionate number of women started their
television careers at the independent newer stations, such
as CITY-TV (Toronto).  There are of course Canadian women
working in Los Angeles.  By way of context, it is useful to
note that the American and British experience is very
similar to this picture for Canada.  Again, the statistics
are hard to come by; however, the figure of 30 per cent is
used as an average for the participation rate of women in
film and television (Gallagher, 1987; Muir, 1989; Robinson,
1989).  Again, the absence of women from senior
decision-making and technical positions is striking.

     Although outside the scope of this paper, it would be
worth investigating the reasons behind these numbers.  One
might study broad labour force barriers to participation,
such as lack of childcare, and difficulties faced by women
attempting to combine participation in the demanding and
stressful media environment with the responsibilities of
parenthood.  It would be necessary to study gendered
patterns and to explore the differences in the patterns for
men and women.  Age and life cycle factors should be
examined.  The TWIFTV statistical profile (1990) did not
include information from the performers' union, ACTRA, which
was unfortunate because ACTRA previously reported data
indicating that when women aged, their income declined, in
distinct contrast to the pattern for men.  Is this still the

     The different career patterns now reported anecdotally
- such as the "Mommy trap" - could also be studied.  The
change in attitude toward the acceptance of a career for
women with small children has traditionally gone hand in
hand with the expectation that these women will take primary
responsibility for childcare.  Is this still the case?
Within the media, it is still rare to find attempts to
nurture the talents of good women by recognizing the double
bind in which their reproductive responsibilities place
them.  What about those women who succeed at combining
career and family life?  What lessons might be learned from
their experience?  We do not yet know the answers, but we
should.  Sally Steenland, author of the American survey,
concluded that "until perceptions become more enlightened,
the TV industry will continue to under-utilize or lose far
too many talented, ambitious women" (NCWW, 1990: 62).


     The portrayal of women in the dominant mass media has
improved since 1968, in the sense that there are a wider
diversity of roles on screen.  Yet persistent trends are now
evident.  Let me briefly summarize a content analysis of
gender role portrayal in the mid- 1980s conducted by Tannis
MacBeth-Williams and her colleagues in the Department of
Psychology at the University of British Columbia (1990).
Considerable evidence of stereotyping was found.  Most
prominent characters were male, and all of the powerful,
authoritative and knowledgeable figures were male, a finding
which held even when females were portrayed in
non-traditional occupations.  The portrayal of women as sex
objects was relatively common, while the portrayal of men as
sex objects was rare.  Sexist comments were infrequent but
did occur, and more often about women.  Men were portrayed
negatively more often than women, and were more commonly the
victims and the perpetrators of physical aggression.  Yet
evidence of change was found.  Many more women were in
non-traditional occupations; in fact, more than in the
labour force at large.  Women were portrayed more equally
than not with regard to sexual behaviour, and a double
standard was rare.  Also rare were direct portrayals
indicating that women were less valued than men, although
the researchers noted their earlier finding that men were
predominantly portrayed as powerful and authoritative.
One-third of the prime-time sexist comments about women
(although infrequent) were portrayed as unacceptable.  The
researchers observed that the picture is now one of women in
non-traditional occupations and men in traditional
occupations.  It was concluded that further research is
indicated in the areas of gendered portrayal, the patterns
of change in male and female roles, and role relationships.

     Despite discussions among regulators, feminist groups
and advertisers since 1979, research indicates that there is
little evidence of change.  Two large-scale content analyses
were conducted for the CRTC by Erin Research (1986, 1990).
These indicate that when portrayal is systematically
studied, female characters continue to be outnumbered by
male characters, and the range of roles available to women
is narrower.  Linda Trimble (1992) has reviewed the history
of policy-making on sex role stereotyping, and concludes
that it has been ineffective.  She calls for specific
indicators of change, which could serve as targets for

     The evidence from the United States is similar, a fact
of obvious significance in Canada given the pervasiveness of
American programming and recent trends toward the
globalization of advertising campaigns.  There is some
evidence that the decline in audience share for all networks
has had effects, but so far the evidence is mostly
anecdotal.  On the one hand, it is argued that this loss of
audience has led to increased pressure to attract attention
for advertising, which may have resulted in an overall
greater tolerance for explicit sexual portrayal.  A case in
point is the report that beer advertisers regard their
target audience as males aged 18-24, who are attracted by
sexist ads (Debbie Wise-Harris, personal communication).
Increasing target marketing may foster an attitude of profit
over sensitivity.  The dominant logic of the mass media is
marketing, and with our mixed public and private system in
Canada, given the underfunding of the public sector, this
logic holds sway across the television spectrum available to
the viewer.  In the rhetoric of advertisers, truth is what
sells; sex sells - or at least gets the attention of the
viewers - and thus from chiclets to cars women's bodies are
used to sell products.  Yet there is also evidence, in the
global marketing studies conducted by Rena Bartos (1982,
1989), that advertisers risk offending and turning off their
female audiences with sexist fare.  Feminist analysts are
divided in their interpretations of these phenomena, as
witness the debates over pornography and censorship and more
recently over the cultural authority and significance of
sex/pop icon Madonna.

     Before turning to lobbying, let us consider an
important hypothesis tested by MacBeth-Williams and her
colleagues.  That hypothesis was that Canadian-produced
programming would be less sexist than American-produced
programming since guidelines and policy statements have been
issued here, after much pressure, on the subject of sexism
in programming and advertising.  There was support for this
difference with regard to occupational and sex object
portrayals (remember, this study was only of programs, not
ads).  However, only limited support was found in the area
of powerful/authoritative/knowledgeable portrayals, and no
difference was observed with regard to the numerical
preponderance of males.  This held true for both the public
and private networks.  The researchers concluded that
"commitments and policies regarding gender role stereotyping
are very important."  However, voluntary guidelines were
deemed inadequate; specific regulations were recommended in
order to achieve significant change, especially on the
private networks.  The reason advanced by the authors is
that the conservatism of the industry seems to be in part a
byproduct of its structure.  Programming decisions are made
largely on the basis of conjecture about what advertisers
think audiences will watch.  Thus far there is little
evidence that women in media management make different
decisions, although this is an article of faith in most
feminist analysis.  It remains very difficult to draw valid
conclusions, in the continued absence of women from the
boardrooms of broadcasting and other media corporations.  It
would be worth sustained research into the question of
linkages between gender, corporate structure and
programming.  Audiences have little say, as viewers choose
from what is available, not what might be available.  (It is
possible to speculate about the increased use of video
cassette recorders in the household and the consequent
decline of network viewing in these terms, but that departs
from the scope of this paper).  The American study quotes a
female director on her role in portrayal: "My name has been
on the credits of many shows offensive to women.  All I can
say is, the shows would've been worse if I hadn't been
there" (NCWW, 1990: 51).

               Policy Activism and Lobbying

     Lobbying has resulted in gains for women, although its
significance is under dispute.  The national media consumer
lobby group MediaWatch, with grassroots support from
audience members across the country, has been fighting a
campaign against sexism in television advertising and
programming since 1974 (Crean, 1992).  TWIFTV was formed in
1984 as a sister group with the Los Angeles-based Women in
Film, and has cultivated an outstanding ability to raise
funds in support of research, marketing and educational
efforts on behalf of women working in film and video
industries.  Recently the two groups co-produced a video
designed to reach the advertising industry.  These groups
maintain full-time offices in addition to active volunteer

     One of the more significant achievements of feminist
lobbying was a CRTC policy statement in 1986 that decreed
compliance with sex role stereotyping guidelines to be a
condition of broadcast licence renewal (1986: 351).  In her
study of this policy-making process, Trimble (1992) notes
that the subsequent content analyses by Erin Research
indicate that self-regulation has failed.  The CRTC appears
to have no enthusiasm for the task of regulating
broadcasters in this area, and receives support in this
position from private broadcasters and those who fear
infringement on freedom of expression.  Feminist groups
counter with the argument that the collision of rights is
between commercial imperatives and equality rights.  As a
result of this conflict, the will to move into mandatory
guidelines with regard to television advertising has been
lacking, however, and the concept of the "free marketplace
of ideas" seems to hold sway.  There has been no further
action despite what appeared to the lobby groups to be a
clear-cut mandate for action, namely the finding by CRTC
researchers in the period of voluntary guidelines on sex
role stereotyping that little had changed.  The Canadian
ability to regulate in this area is of course compromised by
the fact that made-in-Canada regulations would have no
impact upon imported American shows.

     To further complicate matters, the broadcast industry
has complained in recent years about the poor profit picture
facing many.  These problems have commanded the attention of
the regulator, which is thought by many commentators to be
captured by the industry it regulates.  The threat of
de-regulated services has led industry and regulator to
convene broadcast "summit meetings."  A major hearing has
been scheduled for April 1993 to discuss the restructuring
of the industry.  Will women's concerns be on the agenda?

     In tough financial times arguments made on the basis of
social justice seem less likely to win a hearing than those
based on professionalism, or the interests of the entire
industry in employing women's talents, and not offending
women as audiences.  In this regard, it is worth noting that
a new lobby group of professional women in broadcasting,
Canadian Women in Radio and Television (CWRT), was formed in
1991, with a national board of directors drawn from the
senior management of media companies.  CWRT's promotional
literature features a boardroom filled with empty chairs and
the large-lettered tag line: "We'll see to it that women in
radio and TV are put in their place."  It is too early to
say what impact this group will have.

     During the 1980s a strong women's lobby coalition
emerged, significantly including women working in the
industry.  Previous activism had occurred within the CBC and
at the National Film Board, where it contributed to the
establishment of the women's studio, Studio D, under
Kathleen Shannon.  It had also emerged on an ad hoc basis
when women citizens and consumers protested; for example, in
the demonstrations against the first national pay-TV
channel's broadcast of Playboy programming.

     The second major achievement was the inclusion of women
in the 1991 Broadcasting Act.  In the mid-1980s, in response
to the establishment of the Caplan-Sauvageau Task Force on
Broadcasting, a coalition of previously unconnected groups
emerged to fight for attention to women's concerns in the
debate over changes to the Broadcasting Act.  The ACTRA
National Women's Committee, representing the performers'
union, added their voices to a national coalition of
writers, producers, filmmakers and journalists (from the
Centre for Investigative Journalism - Women's Network), and
obtained the endorsement of the National Action Committee on
the Status of Women and the National Film Board's Studio D.
Combining forces with MediaWatch, which had concentrated
until then mostly on issues of portrayal, this volunteer
group, known as the Common Committee on Mass Media in the
1990s, persuaded Parliamentarians that the time had come to
include women in the Broadcasting Act (Jeffrey, 1989).
Specific language was achieved on the subject of women's
employment in the industry: "The Canadian broadcasting
system should through its programming and its employment
opportunities ... serve the needs and interests and reflect
the circumstances and aspirations of Canadian men and women,
including equal rights."  This Act, the fifth in Canadian
history since the 1932 foundation of the public broadcasting
system, was proclaimed law in the spring of 1991.  Despite
opposition by the CRTC, the CBC, and the Canadian
Association of Broadcasters (the voice of the private
broadcasters), this important clause remained in the Act.

     The reason why this legislative action was undertaken
can be understood with reference to two developments.  The
first was the lesson drawn by feminist media activists from
the political culture of the Canadian women's movement.  The
successful mobilization of the women's movement to ensure
the entrenchment of gender equality in the Charter of Rights
and Freedoms (1982) persuaded Canadian women that they could
intervene effectively in legislative negotiations, all the
more impressive compared to the failure of American women to
do the same with the Equal Rights Amendment.  This taking of
Section 28 - as the event became known - empowered women to
see the legislative route as at once possible, and an
important baseline for securing future action.  The
inclusion of women in the Broadcasting Act seemed overdue, a
fact recognized at the time by then Minister of
Communications Flora Macdonald.  This is the second
development: there were senior women inside the Tory
cabinet.  It is widely speculated that without the presence
of a senior woman cabinet minister, sympathetic to the aims
of women activists, there would be no employment section,
and possibly no mention of women in the Act.

     The reasoning of the women's lobby was that a
legislative basis was essential to further strategic action
on both portrayal and labour force participation.  The
CRTC's unwillingness to act on behalf of women's concerns
regarding portrayal has led to recent discussion of the
possible involvement of the Canadian Human Rights Commission
in the implementation of the broadcast employment clause.
This is due to the CHRC's responsibility for enforcement
(such as it is) of the employment equity legislation, to
which all broadcasters with more than one hundred employees
are subject.  TWIFTV presented a brief to the 1992 hearings
on the Employment Equity legislation, calling for specific
attention to the situation of women in media employment.


     The rise of the organized women's movement in Canada
and its ongoing lobbying efforts beginning in the early
1970s brought women's experiences and expectations into
conflict with the images presented in the mass media.  The
mass media have become a symbolic battleground in which
conflicting interpretations of the proper role of women in
cultural life have been fought.  Feminist activists and
their coalition allies inside the media concluded that they
did not have the authority to persuade recalcitrant
management to let them inside, or to grant them either power
or funding.  In this political contest, the involvement of
the state then became a way to overcome the perceived lack
of cultural authority.  As with other areas of employment,
it was reasoned that it is crucial to have women on the
inside if change is to occur.  Unfortunately, there is very
little solid evidence of the sort needed to explore the
suggested linkage between employment of women and portrayal
of women.  Anecdotes are, however, legion.  Let's recall the
comments of Doddie Robb, an early pioneer in television
management at the CBC.  She described how the men in the
meetings she attended found that at the very least they
could no longer get away with demeaning women (as audience)
while she was present.  Still, there is no "critical mass."

     To return to cultural authority, let me provide an
example of what this means in terms of portrayal.  In a
multi-media pilot content analysis conducted in 1986 on the
question of feminist content in the media, called "WoMedia,"
a sample of one week of television, magazine, and newspaper
(Canadian only) media available in the Toronto market was
studied for the presence of feminist content (pro and con).
The most striking finding was on cultural authority.
Feminist voices tended to be heard, as commentators and
spokespeople, once the issue under discussion had been
legitimated by another authoritative body.  For example,
that week by chance was one in which the Ontario government
released a major report on spouse abuse.  Feminist groups
were included in news reports, feminist cultural authority
counted, and experts were invited to speak.  For the most
part, however, feminist-initiated issues did not make it
onto the air, the page, or the agenda in the absence of this
authoritative legitimation (Jeffrey, 1987).

     Several points deserve attention.  Most notable is the
finding from the MacBeth-Williams research that women were
not portrayed, despite their on-screen non-traditional
occupations, in roles connoting authority, knowledge and
power.  What exactly is the linkage to the finding that
women are under-represented in the senior decision-making
media positions?  We are helping in the sandbox; some things
have thankfully changed.  However, the conclusion can be
drawn that until there is a critical mass of women in the
media, significant change is impossible.  Again, we know too
little about this subject.  It is therefore necessary to
continue, in Crean's phrase, to piece the picture together.

     I want to close with a few provocative comments on
women and power in the media.  First, let's provisionally
answer that important question from Shelagh Young: what
impact has feminism had on the dominant media?  There has
been an unquestionable impact.  True, television provides
silly and sexist fare, but it also features productions that
are deeply pleasurable.  The feminist challenge to the logic
of marketing provided alternative perspectives and critical
vantage points.  Female cultural authorities emerged to
articulate this position.  Lobbying, with the support of the
organized women's movement in Canada, has achieved important
gains, among them the inclusion of employment in the
Broadcasting Act and guidelines for sexist advertising.  But
this challenge, now under counter attack, has not succeeded
in providing women with access to cultural authority as
women.  Female public affairs commentators are without
question important figures in our mediascape.  The public
and media attention surrounding the death of Barbara Frum
indicates that in the past twenty years we have come a long
way from the days when a woman (Jan Tennant) reading the
national news made front page headlines.  The public is now
exposed to a broader range of female cultural authorities
and experts, feminists and others.  However, this visibility
does not change the fact that women are still accorded less
airtime and their views are frequently marginalized.

     In a symbolic battleground where truth is what sells
(and obvious parallels are possible with the marketing
techniques employed in political and public life), the
substantive contribution of women's experience to public
life tends not to be recognized unless it is validated by
other cultural authorities, such as the state.  As Dr.
Ursula Franklin suggested, and as many activists have argued
repeatedly, we women need our own sandbox.  We need women's
programs, produced by and for women.  We need to be mentors,
and we need places to learn and experiment with new
techniques.  This effort must go hand in hand with the
insistence that women, particularly in the public sector, be
promoted to positions of decision- making power, in numbers
large enough to overcome the exceptionalism which has
characterized the careers of many media women to date.  The
vulnerability of CBC managers such as Donna Logan and Trina
McQueen indicates that the gains made by women (even
privileged women) in media management in Canada are easily
reversible.  We need more women, specifically those who will
insist that women's programming initiatives be tried.  I
would argue, heretically for some, that we need to take
risks to find new audiences, to make popular shows that
women and men can enjoy.  Telefilm should be funding this
talent and imagination.

     We also need sustained reflection upon the relationship
of women to media by feminist intellectuals.  One recent
example is Strutt and Hissey's dissection of the well-known
yet seldom discussed inadequacy of the formulation "balance"
(1992).  Finally, we need much more research into gender
participation in media, a question of cultural authority.


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* This article is a revision of themes addressed in a
1990 presentation to the conference "Women and Power:
Canadian and German Experiences" (Jeffrey, 1990).