International Women’s Day celebrates accomplishments of women

Mar 8, 2024 | Culture, Life

As an undergraduate at McGill University, the co-founder and CEO of Alstari, Sue Abu-Hakima, was asked by a male classmate why she was in an electrical engineering class.

“And I said, ‘What do you mean? Why am I here?’ I’m sitting, he goes, ‘You’re just going to go and get married and leave the field. You’re taking up the space of a man,’” Abu-Hakima said.

A person with mid-length, dark curly hair in a suit jacket with a grey background behind.

Sue Abu-Hakima, the co-founder and CEO of Alstari. Photo credit: Alstari

She said when she started working, male co-workers at one job were sticking up pictures of naked women on the wall while at another job, naked women were used as computer screensavers.

“Later on, when I was trying to raise money for our company, also on Bay Street, I was asked if I was married and what my husband thinks of my venture,” Abu-Hakima said.

Tamara Franz-Odendaal, a biology professor at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, described another obstacle for women in the workplace to be getting challenged more than male colleagues in a conference.

“We don’t get the same opportunities to get invited to speak at different places,” Franz-Odendaal said. “Sometimes, I’ve had to turn down some when my child was young because there were no accommodations for the fact that I had a young child and there was no support for my spouse to join me or for childcare or anything.”

A person wearing a sweater and scarf with blurred out homes and trees behind.

Tamara Franz-Odendaal, a biology professor at Mount Saint Vincent University. Photo credit: Mount Saint Vincent University

She said launching a career in science is very competitive as one needs to be publishing and producing on top of trying to get grants which can become even more challenging to balance if one is also a new mother.

Meseret Haileyesus, the CEO of the Canadian Centre for Women’s Empowerment (CCFWE), emphasized the social and gender norms for women are a huge barrier.

“There’s a lot of barriers, especially for women. We are shaping for future women, but we’re rejected by the man,” Haileyesus said. “We’re rejected by the system. It’s not that easy. So the journey is uneasy.”

A person in front of a white background in a red suit jacket.

Meseret Haileyesus, the CEO of the Canadian Centre for Women’s Empowerment (CCFWE). Photo credit: CCFWE

“You have to be out there and show yourself and then make sure also, the stories of real women get heard,” she said.

Haileyesus said COVID-19 left women in a precarious situation because of inflation and the cost of living.

“So, women, already they are highly impacted. They are the first caregiver. Some women, they want to go back to the workforce, they maybe can’t afford child care and a lot of things,” Haileyesus said.

She said there is a need to invest in women’s economic empowerment.

“That’s my call to action. So women have to go to school, they have to go to the workforce, they have to make money,” Haileyesus said. “That’s it. Not investment in social services, welfare and everything, or transitions. That’s good, but that doesn’t change a women’s economy.”

Shannon Pestun, co-founder of The Finance Cafe in Calgary, said she was always told she was bad with numbers growing up which influenced her career although she became one of the first leaders in the country to lead a women’s banking strategy.

“Women have been given wrong money messages for a long time, and girls are taught that it’s rude to talk about money,” Pestun said. “We’ve been socialized to think that we’re bad with numbers.”

A person with long light hair in a black dress with lights and a structure behind.

Shannon Pestun, co-founder of The Finance Cafe. Photo credit: Chris Bolin

“We are from a young age often discouraged from going into math and into STEM, and so these have like knock-on effects as we go through our careers,” she said. “I think when we talk about women as role models, it’s really important because we’re having conversations that we might not have ever had before.”

International Women’s Day has acted as a reminder since 1910 of women’s empowerment and gender equality.

But for some like Humber College student and goalkeeper for its soccer team, Ezequiel Carrasco, the day reminds him to reflect on the two women he admires most, his mother and grandmother.

A family photo of seven people.

Humber student, Ezequiel Carrasco in the middle of this family photo with his grandmother to the left of him and his mother to the right of him. Photo credit: Diego Guillen

“My mom, when she was, I must say, 21, 22, got into a huge car accident that she was lucky to survive, she was recovering for a long time. So just kind of perseverance with that,” Carrasco said.

“My grandma, she’s gone through a crazy couple of years getting diagnosed with cancer and getting sick and she’s been fighting through it which is definitely a big inspiration for me and my family,” he said.

Carrasco has dealt with recovery from knee surgery which took him off the field from playing soccer which was hard as he was doing everything to get on the field and recover but his body was not keeping up with him.

However, this was one of those moments where his mother’s and grandmother’s teachings and perseverance helped him push through.