Creating Girls' Spaces in Toronto Community Centres Isn't That Simple
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Creating Girls’ Spaces in Toronto Community Centres Isn’t That Simple

Historically, girls' voices have been erased. But meeting today's girls' demands creates another set of problems.

Women in Toronto explores the issues that women in the city face.

Last year, a few dozen girls aged 13 to 18 sat in colourful, decorated rooms in four different community centres across Toronto and spoke to researchers from Social Planning Toronto. The centres, ranging in location from North Kipling to Scarborough, were host to Toronto’s newest youth spaces funded by the City. As similar establishments were being built across the GTA, researchers wanted to learn about the initiative’s successes and shortfalls.

But a previous report from that year, led in part by SPT, had omitted young women’s perspectives from its evaluation. The report’s leaders had done so inadvertently, as is so often the case: they had simply spoken to a majority of boys and taken their responses as universal.

Now, SPT returned to the community centres to determine whether, as suspected, researchers would gather “other information” by speaking to the girls who used the space. Let’s call it a well-meaning afterthought.

Two weeks ago, SPT published its results [PDF]. For the most part, they were unsurprising: young women had a lot to say. But the girls were also remarkably traditional in their understanding of femininity. For the most part, their suggestions for girl-friendly spaces did not allow for a richer, more inclusive future for Toronto’s young women. Instead, they painted a stark picture of today’s teenage girls, and prompted questions about just how to respond.

Having spoken with only 32 girls from across Toronto, the interviewers with SPT could not reach any definite conclusions, nor were they keen to do so. But there was a noticeable pattern in girls’ responses to the youth spaces. Negative experiences at the centres (following many positive ones) could be separated into two categories.

First, boys and girls were clearly divided in after-school programs. There was a large majority of boys using the centres, and they tended to monopolize some of the activities. One participant told the focus group that “boys at her youth space treat girls like they ‘are nothing and [the boys] run everything.’”

And second, the spaces seemed to be “designed for guys.” Girls pointed out that the spaces as they exist now seemed like a “man cave,” inadvertently designed to suit young boys’ needs and preferences. The young women wanted catered activities to suit their own interests. And they wanted it to be a “girls’ space” in its most basic, traditional incarnation: they “wanted it to be more like a spa,” complete with coloured walls and hair and makeup stations.

The first problem is a problem of attitude, one that should be handled by the City and staff members at the centre. But the second problem brings up an interesting question: just because the majority of girls have asked for a more generically feminine space, should the City provide it?

A page near the end of SPT’s report bears the intriguing title, “Understanding of femininity.” Young women identify strongly with body image, the text reads. “This focus on beauty is a growing trend amongst teenage girls, and youth-serving agencies need to take this into account when planning programs.” Further down, SPT (thankfully) acknowledges that this emphasis on the superficial is driven by “physical, social, and emotional components,” and recommends that any future initiative should take those pressures into consideration.

That’s a lot of big talk, and it prompts questions about girls’ spaces to which we don’t yet have the answers. What is the proper reaction to such calls for more distinctly “feminine spaces”? Certainly, ignoring them outright is no way to empower young women. But many would cringe at the idea of a “girls-only space” full of exaggerated cosmetology. One need only look back to Richmond Hill in 2013, when the city’s “Girlz Rock” day camp, chock full of “mini-manicures and mini-pedicures,” faced serious criticism. An Ottawa community centre encountered similar problems this year: the executive director admitted the centre’s faults after parents criticized its gendered youth summer camps: among others, “Man Cave” for boys and “Fit Chicks” for girls.

No one wants Toronto to go down the same path. But we can’t ignore the fact that young women want to hang out after school in more comprehensive spaces. Most girls in SPT’s admittedly small research sample had a specific vision in mind, from activities such as singing, dancing, and makeup programs to a redesigned space with full-length mirrors and pink and purple walls.

I asked Sean Meagher of SPT what exactly the report implied and what it meant for the City of Toronto. Meagher responded, rightly tiptoeing around the subject, that the survey was an “unvarnished account of what young women want.” He told me the community can’t reach any conclusions before having a greater conversation about youth zones and girls’ spaces. SPT is trying to foster that conversation through further reports and a symposium in the fall.

The importance of having youth spaces that welcome young girls is irrefutable. For years, these buildings have been part of the City’s strategy for poverty reduction. Youth unemployment is high in Toronto (worse than provincial and national averages), and criminal vulnerability is a problem. At the very least, youth zones provide necessary safety and structure. And for teenage girls, who face a number of “gender-specific challenges” according to SPT, the centres help them advance their academic performances and find a supportive community.

The fact that some girls choose not to go to after-school programs because they don’t feel welcome is a problem. And if community centres decide to cater to only some girls’ desires, they will remain just as unwelcoming to others who might not want shelter in a spa setting.

But there’s still no simple answer. Some participants in the SPT study suggested girls-only zones, like those found in several places such as YWCA Toronto. But that’s not a universal solution: though separate spaces help, young women shouldn’t have to segregate themselves in order to feel at home. Sure, today’s girls and boys are different, both socially and culturally, but that split will hopefully diminish with future generations. The choice is between humouring a gender divide to please today’s girls or undertaking the heavy task of bridging it.

Perhaps the answer is not to create new girls’ spaces but instead to adapt all spaces to be more accurately gender neutral. That would mean acknowledging that today’s youth centres aren’t entirely successful and calling for a renovation of Toronto’s current facilities. What does girls’ empowerment mean, and what does it look like?

Though we might not have a complete answer, I doubt it includes boys at the entrance and girls in the spa zone.