Women of CESO: 50 YearsJuly 19, 2017
When CESO was founded in 1967, less than 30% of women were an active part of the workforce in Canada, and CESO’s founders did not consider the potential of women to contribute to CESO’s work as an international economic development organization. Since then, women have entered the workforce in droves to become a crucial component of Canada’s economy, and today, the importance of gender equality is self-evident. CESO’s journey as an organization is reflective of this progress, and in the 50 years since CESO’s formation, CESO has grown from a small, male-led organization to a leading Canadian NGO that actively encourages women’s economic participation and empowerment.
In CESO’s early years, volunteers were known as “CESO Men”, and all but a few of CESO’s volunteers were male. However, women were involved in CESO’s activities in some capacity from the very beginning. Male volunteers on international assignments would often be accompanied by their wives who, despite not being official CESO volunteers, would make significant contributions to their husbands’ assignments. In some cases, CESO wives would teach English or volunteer at local hospitals while their husbands worked with clients. In other cases, the women were equally skilled in their husbands’ area of expertise and would help fulfill the assignment objectives. The contributions of CESO wives did not go unnoticed or unappreciated; in 1971, a client in Brazil wrote a letter of thanks to CESO for sending not one volunteer, but two, a sentiment echoed by countless clients and partners.
By 1976, 25 of CESO’s 1,200 volunteers were women. Though this was only 2% of the total roster, it was enough for CESO President C.A. Peachey to consider the importance of women to CESO’s future. In the President’s Review in the annual report that year, Peachey remarked that “perhaps we should be recruiting more women volunteers because, in many developing countries, women are the economic providers of the family group.” To reflect this new perspective, CESO changed the position title from “CESO Men” to “CESO Volunteers”, a shift in language which would encourage more women to volunteer.
It wasn’t long after this that CESO as a whole began to recognize the significance of female volunteers. In 1978, Marguerite Van Allen became the first woman to have her work profiled in CESO’s annual report–not as the wife of a CESO man, but as an independent volunteer. The year before, Van Allen completed a six-month mentorship assignment at the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf in St. George’s, Grenada. During her stay in St. George’s, Van Allen introduced the local teachers to methods of teaching language practiced in Canadian schools and helped staff members create a health education program.
As more and more women joined CESO’s staff and roster of volunteers, CESO became increasingly aware of the challenges faced by their female clients, and soon gender became a key focus of CESO’s international and national work. In an interview with The Sun in 1988, VA Lynne Gordon noted that though women often run small business enterprises in developing countries, they “usually fall between the cracks”, and are frequently unrecognized, untrained and underpaid. That same year, Gordon became the founding chair of CESO’s Women in Development Committee. The purpose of the committee was to ensure that female clients were specifically targeted for CESO assistance, and to actively search for qualified businesswomen to join the volunteer roster.
In addition to cultivating gender equality within the organization’s staff and volunteers, CESO also began to actively hire Indigenous employees to manage programs with Indigenous clients. These priorities intersected in 1992, when Gwen La Freniere became the first Indigenous woman to be appointed as a CESO regional manager. As the head of the national program in Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario, La Freniere coordinated communications with tribal councils and Aboriginal associations in the region, matched VAs with clients and ensured that Indigenous groups were satisfied with CESO services.
Gwen La Freniere was part of a larger transition within CESO towards gender-balanced leadership, a trend that continues to this day. Following CEO Don Johnson’s resignation in 2010, Wendy Harris stepped up as CESO’s first female President & CEO, after having served as CESO’s Chief Financial Officer since 2009. As CEO, Harris is vocal about the social and economic importance of empowering female entrepreneurs. In a video in honour of International Women’s Day 2017, Harris states that “breaking down barriers to the economic inclusion of women unlocks potential for transformative change,” and she acknowledges the importance of encouraging an inclusive, gender-equal world in the 21st century. In the seven years since becoming CESO’s CEO, Harris has strengthened CESO’s brand as a leading NGO in economic development and cultivated a culture of continuous improvement within the organization.
Today, gender is one of CESO’s cross-cutting themes, and all activities consider women’s economic empowerment and gender-inclusive policies. In the 2015-2016 fiscal year, 48% of all people trained and mentored by VAs were women, and CESO currently has 334 female volunteers – roughly ⅓ of the volunteer roster. CESO continues to take pride in its partnerships with women’s organizations at home and abroad, like the Nronga Women’s Dairy Cooperative in Tanzania and the Quang Ngai Women’s Union in Vietnam. Recently, Canada adopted a Feminist International Assistance policy to to advance the empowerment of women and girls worldwide, and CESO is excited to contribute to this bold new initiative. CESO’s history has been a journey of progress, and the inclusion of women reflects CESO’s constant mission towards institutional improvement. Today, more than ever, it is clear that women are an integral part of CESO’s future.