The day is coming when Tess will be the one who decides to indulge her parents in a pink tu-tu photo shoot and I will have absolutely no say in the matter.  Truth be told, I look forward to that day: it is the day she starts to think critically and I get a glimpse of the woman she will eventually become.

I often wonder what Tess’ interests and ambitions will be when she gets older.  Will she be an athlete?  A scholar?  An artist?  An entrepreneur?  A philanthropist?  Will I be walking her to the rowing course down the street, or the dance studio next door?  Will I be a soccer mom, a hockey mom, or a mom who has to comes to terms with a daughter who is not at all interested in sports?  Will she groan when we force her to take part in family Friday night karaoke, or belt out the lyrics like Celine Dion at Caesar’s Palace?

Whatever her chosen path, I hope she is able to pursue her dreams free of gender stereotypes.  If she wants to get into management, I hope she will not be asked to fetch coffees or feed parking meters.  If she wants to pursue a trade, I hope she will be able to do so without cat-calls or condescension.  And, most importantly, I hope she finds a partner who respects her ideas, opinions and aspirations.

The other day my husband and I were discussing the panel of dragons on Dragon’s Den and we pondered the common attributes of self-made wealthy men.  Slick.  Quick witted.  A little bit abrasive.  But I qualified that the same does not hold true for self-made women.  “It’s hard for us, you know,” I mused, eluding to stereotypes like dragon-lady and bitch.  He waded carefully into this redirected conversation, “But not as tough as it was for women thirty years ago,” he said.  I sighed, “but hopefully much tougher than it will be for women thirty years from now.”  He gazed at baby Tess thoughtfully and nodded in agreement.

It wasn’t until I became a mother that I really understood that gender inequalities remain prevalent in our 21st century North American society.  For women who decide to pursue a career outside the home, there are few affordable, equitable and systematic early learning centres backed by the public sector (though the province of Quebec has a promising model that I hope will soon catch on in the rest of the country).  And the women who choose to care for others’ children in order to stay home with their little ones are paid a mere pittance when you consider the importance of the service they offer: outside of doctors and presidents, I can think of few more significant roles than nurturing young children.

And the inequities don’t stop there.  According to Van Jones in The Green Collar Economy, women in America earn only 77 cents on the dollar of their male counterparts.  Careers traditionally pursued by women are paid significantly less and women who pursue traditional male roles are still paid less than men.  These issues are unlikely to receive much policy attention because, as it stands, women are significantly underrepresented in governments at the local, regional, and national levels.

I am one of the lucky ones.  I was raised in an environment filled with high expectations and opportunity.  I have had mentors who recognized my potential and helped me to achieve my goals.  And I have a partner who doesn’t just claim he supports my dreams, he truly walks the walk.  Despite my good fortune, I fear that my experience is more the exception than the rule.

The twenty-first century holds many challenges that will require fresh perspectives and innovation.  Climate change must be stabilized at no more than 3 degrees Celsius warmer by 2100.  Food security is paramount for the millions of people who will face shortages in the coming decades.  Entire economies must be transformed to recognize that traditional manufacturing based solutions are fiscally and environmentally unsustainable.  And these are just a few of the challenges that lay ahead.

We are doing ourselves a disservice if we exclude half the population in the pursuit of solutions.  Luckily, new models of innovation based on inclusion and collaboration are revolutionizing traditional hierarchical approaches to problem solving.  Open source software, direct publishing and collaborative design have advocates claiming that accessibility enhances the end product because many were involved in developing solution.  If we could meaningfully apply these models elsewhere policy making will no longer be the sphere of an elite backed by special interest.  And we will be privy to the ideas of brilliant young minds from across gender, racial and socio-economic boundaries.

Women are up for the challenge.  In North America, female enrollment in post secondary education is at an all time high.  Young girls are so consistently outperforming in academic environments that in cities like Toronto school boards are establishing schools specifically aimed at helping boys catch up.  If we invest in supports to help women cope with the challenges of raising a young family, such as nationally supported early learning programs, equitable parental leave opportunities, and legislated employer flexibility, women will be better able to contribute to the solutions we require.  And in developing countries, programs are desperately needed to alleviate family burdens on young women so they may pursue an education and life outside the home.

We have come a long way since the days of Mary Wollstonecraft and Betty Friedan.  But the next generation of women will play a much greater role than we could ever imagine.

Thank heaven for little girls.