Times Change: An employment service that gives women a second chance at careers

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International Women's Week is celebrating its 100th anniversary, but the gender gap persists . The president of Times Change in Toronto describes how her women's employment service is bridging the divide.

This year's International Women's Day (IWD) theme of equal access to education, training and technology is particularly meaningful for Arshia Raafat, President of the Board of Directors of Times Change Employment Service. The theme emphasizes the tenets of her Toronto-based, not-for-profit agency.

It has empowered women to realize fulfilling careers since 1974; last year the organization helped 1,600 women. The clients range from immigrants to social assistance recipients and the underemployed.

"Many women have stated that they find it to be a safe place where they are comfortable and not judged," Ms. Raafat said.

In this single-tier organization volunteer staff provide career and educational counseling to assist their clients in reaching their goals. "It gave me the opportunity to work with one of the few existing collectives in Canada," Ms. Raafat said.

Every year they participate in the IWD March in Toronto. This year's Canadian theme is an offshoot of the global one: "Girls' Rights Matter" stresses equality and access to opportunity for all females.

The greater context is that a girl who enjoys equality will be more confident and aware of her own capabilities -- and her right to education and training.

Times Change has faced some financial challenges. They recently lost a revenue source because it did not meet Employment Ontario's new funding criteria.

Their mandate has also been disputed because they only serve women. But their funding was renewed thanks to a comprehensive advocacy campaign that culminated in a meeting with councilors, MPs, and MPPs.

"We fought hard to show that there is value in offering women these specific services and persevered," Ms. Raafat said.

However, Canadian women still have many barriers to overcome. In a March 4th Globe & Mail article, women's advocacy group Catalyst reviewed 468 of the country's largest companies in 2010 and found that only 17.7 per cent of senior officer positions were held by women, and increase of less than one per cent from 2008.

They have not expanded into male-dominated jobs in transportation, construction and mechanical trades. At present, women still account for 92 per cent of Canada's 287,000 nursing positions and 57 per cent of the 1.3 million jobs in the broad sales and service sectors including 90 per cent of childcare positions.

Canadian mothers continue to earn 65 per cent less annually than their male counterparts; raising children produces this disparity also known as the motherhood earnings gap.

Mrs. Raafat said that there needs to be an acknowledgement of the need for flexible working hours for those raising families -- and especially single mothers.

"Although women benefit from equal legal status in Canada, they are not always treated as equals," she said. "The existence of women-specific services and shelters and the high rate of domestic abuse are a testament to the fact that we have a long way to go."

And the rest of the world needs to catch up: globally, women are not in equal numbers in politics or business, nor do they receive the same pay.

Ms. Raafat was born in Iran where women have fewer rights. "I was always aware that as women we had much to gain," she said. "I made a conscious effort to understand the issues and their roots."

This June she will be celebrating her three-year anniversary with Times Change, but she hopes to be forced into early retirement. "I look forward to the day when I am treated as an equal citizen no matter where I go or live," she said.

The 100th Anniversary of International Women's Week 2011 begins on March 6 and wraps up on March 12. Canada celebrates International Women's Day on March 8.

Peripatetic by nature and a poet by design, Cara worked for a bank and charity before focusing on writing. She is based in Toronto. Find her at belledejournal.com.


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