Two Feminist Days in Ottawa: The CBC’s Women’s Seminar

Barbara M. Freeman, Carleton University


During the 1970s, Canada’s broadcast newswomen and their allies fought for a stronger female presence on the air and equity in hiring and promotions. Despite a very critical internal report on the status of women in the CBC, issued in 1975, and the establishment of an Office of Equal Opportunity that same year, progress was slow. In 1978, feminist groups complained to the CRTC that CBC management had done little to improve the prospects of its female staff or its portrayal of women. The CBC reacted by holding a two-day seminar in Ottawa with feminist groups, promising stronger policies.  This paper explores the feminist impact, using archived documents, some of them newly released, a transcript of the seminar, media accounts and oral history.


Barbara M. Freeman is a media historian. Her current project examines Canada’s female broadcasters, 1945-2000, within the context of the women’s movements of those decades.


During the 1970s, Canada’s broadcast newswomen and their allies fought for equity in hiring and promotions and a stronger and more realistic female presence on the air.  It was an essentially humanist argument in an era of human rights activism that also saw the renewal of the women’s rights movement. A number of women’s groups were particularly focused on correcting underrepresentation and sexist stereotypes, complaints they brought to the Canadian Radio Television Communications Commission (Linda Trimble, 1990). The feminists declared that the CBC was not giving Canada’s female citizens on-air credit for their important contributions to national identity and life. They based their argument on the premise, as outlined in The Broadcasting Act of 1968 and imbedded in CBC policy, that the country’s broadcasting system should “enrich and strengthen the cultural, political, social and economic fabric of Canada.” The Act said that all Canadian broadcast programming should be “varied and comprehensive and should provide reasonable and balanced opportunity for the expression of differing views on matters of public concern” (Canada, 1968 Broadcasting Act, Section 2, sub-section 3(d), cited in CBC, CBC Information Programming – A Statement of Policy, May 29, 1972, 1). The feminists wanted the CRTC to demand measureable improvements in the CBC’s treatment of women as a condition of renewing its broadcasting licenses. After the 1978 hearings, the CBC reacted by holding a two-day seminar in Ottawa with representatives from the women’s rights groups who intervened.  This paper explores this moment in feminist time, and its impact.

The Context

My approach is feminist in perspective and interdisciplinary in nature, examining the gendered culture of one media organization, the CBC, in the context of women’s history and activism. Hiring practices did not fall under the CRTC’s mandate but it did set up a task force on the media’s portrayal of women in which the CBC participated (Trimble, p. 328). Some critics have argued that the feminists’ focus on stereotypes outpaced their concern about the equality rights of women in broadcasting (Laurie Laplanche, 2016, 343).  My research in progress demonstrates that they did recognize the important link between female visibility and employment, and that their interventions had a definite influence on CBC management’s hiring policies.

Most CBC histories do not pay much attention to women and their roles in the corporation. But several researchers (Barbara M. Freeman, 2001, 2011; Laplanche, 2015, 2016; Gertrude. J. Robinson, 2005; Alison Taylor, 1986; Jean Bruce 1981-82) have examined the employment and portrayal of female broadcasters  in the CBC and Radio-Canada between the 1940s and the 1990s, from historical, sociological and cultural perspectives. They have established that gender bias was systemic there. My research, mainly on female broadcasters in the CBC’s English Services Division, has been enhanced by a number of sources that I and other researchers have not used as extensively to date. They include CBC management documents covering the 1970s and early 1980s, some of them newly released through Access to Information at Library and Archives Canada (LAC). They measure the progress of equity in the CBC and include a full transcript of the 1979 women’s seminar, and documentation before and after a follow-up seminar in 1980.[1]  My sources also include the papers of the late Betty Zimmerman, one of the CBC’s most senior female managers at the time, which are at Carleton University.[2] The documentation demonstrates  that feminist activism  played an important role in gradually persuading  the slow-moving CBC executives to accept affirmative action principles in dealing with all its female employees.  In this paper, I will be prioritizing the CBC’s response to the feminist groups on employment equity in news and current affairs.

Feminist discontent with the CBC over employment and portrayal issues had been apparent for some time.  The media covered their earlier interventions at a 1974 CRTC hearing (Kay Rex, 1974; Blaik Kirby, 1974), while pressure from female employee groups inside the CBC led to its own Task Force on the Status of Women (Laplanche, 2016, 330-334). The task force recommended affirmative action to increase the numbers, visibility and promotion prospects of women in all areas, including news and current affairs (CBC, Task Force on the Status of Women, 1975, 7). It persuaded management to set up an Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO) to introduce and carry out new human resources policies, focusing on employment equity (CBC, Task Force on the Status of Women, 1975, 193-196). But an effective affirmative action policy was slow to develop.

By October 1977, the CBC had adopted a policy that was supposed to “reaffirm” that “equal opportunity” in “employment, training, and development” was available to “everyone” in the CBC, regardless of sex, marital status, age, race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation (Zimmerman Papers, CBC Secretariat, Corporate Policy No. 6, “Equal Opportunity of Employment in the CBC,” October 25, 1977). Despite the fact that the CBC prioritized women in carrying it out, there was little change for female broadcasters. Human Resources was studying childcare, had adjusted some compensation, pension and maternity leave provisions and rewritten its recruitment material to be more gender inclusive. But most of its efforts centered on conducting studies and providing career training for its secretarial and support staff. It was ready to develop an affirmative action policy but had to set goals and conduct dialogue with senior managers first (CBC, A.W. Johnson to Marc Lalonde, Minister Responsible for the Status of Women, November 29, 1977).

The Women’s Seminar

The lack of dramatic progress since the 1975 Task Force report annoyed the feminist advocates who appeared at the 1978 license hearings, again demanding that the  CRTC hold the public broadcaster more accountable to Canada’s female citizens. With its own media monitoring study of the CBC’s English-language services in hand, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC), an independent lobby group, stated that if the CBC hired more women in programming and management, the portrayal of women on the air would improve (P. McCallum, 1978, 15). The CBC president, A.W. Johnson, promised the CRTC that he would hear the feminist critics out, and organized a two-day seminar with them in Ottawa in February 1979 (CBC, Transcript of the 1978 CRTC Hearings, Vol. VIII, 2275-2277).

Johnson’s invitation to the women’s groups was part of an overall strategy for responding to a number of different organizations that had intervened at the CRTC hearings with criticism of the CBC.  With advancing Americanization, privatization, audience fragmentation and technological advances, the CBC was at risk of losing audience support. As the Acting Vice-President of Audience Relations, Betty Zimmerman was on the CBC’s study team for this strategic outreach. She also chaired the organizing committee for the women’s seminar, which was to deal with sexist stereotyping in programming and commercials, and hiring, training and promoting more women (CBC, Three Key Priorities – the 1980s, 2-3).

Updated documents from the OEO in Zimmerman’s papers show that by January 1979, there was still much work to do. The CBC had initiated more inclusive recruiting policies, was still considering stronger affirmative action, and was holding sexism awareness sessions for supervisors. But it had not yet rectified all its equal pay anomalies, finalized its job interview guidelines, produced an inventory of current CBC women, dealt with women on contract, or come close to gender equality in English or French news or current affairs (Elizabeth Zimmerman Papers, File F723, “CBC Task Force on the Status of Women,  Recommendations and Implementation, January1979,” 1-2). For the women’s seminar, Zimmerman and the other organizers had decided that the twenty senior and middle managers present needed a basic primer on the nature of sexism, and how it related to both the labour market and programming. To start off, several academic specialists discussed sex-role stereotyping and how it works (CBC, Women’s Seminar Transcript, 8-39).  Then it was the turn of the invited feminist groups, who reiterated the complaints they made at the 1978 hearings and then engaged in dialogue with Johnson and his CBC colleagues. Here are examples of what they said about the links between portrayal and equity hiring.

Lynn McDonald of  NAC did not mince words. She called the CBC’s portrayal of women “an abuse of its obligation to the Canadian public. Specifically, it gives a severely distorted impression of the nature and contribution of half the Canadian population; it infringes on the public’s right to be informed about women’s issues as well as men’s, and it reveals a failure to be open and responsive to changing social realities” (CBC, Women’s Seminar Transcript, 59). Sylvia Spring, a film producer, represented Vancouver Status of Women (VSW). Spring declared that the latest OEO figures she had, from 1977, showed only modest advances in employment equity, suggesting that the CBC actually gave it low priority. She told them to get rid of sexist language on the air and questioned the CBC’s stance on journalistic objectivity since news about women was absent, or imbalanced.  Spring suggested that the CBC add a new position, “women’s issues,” to their roster of specialty reporting beats (CBC, Women’s Seminar Transcript, 1979, 95-98).

Sue Findlay of the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women (CACSW), which was federally appointed, noted a modest increase in the number of women in on-air position, such as reporters, newscasters and hosts.   But none of the 12 CBC foreign correspondents were female, Findlay said; moreover, the latest data did not include the women who were hired on contract as producers and in on-air positions. She declared that hiring women was essential to accuracy in female portrayal. In her words: “…the female image must be formed by making full use of the insights and understanding of women themselves” (CBC, Women’s Seminar Transcript, 110-115).

Ruth Hinkley of the National Council of Women of Canada (NCWC) said more training was needed for female production staff , and that female managers, who were not unionized, should receive “equal pay for work of equal value” CBC, Women’s Seminar Transcript, 149). After these presentations, Johnston promised to bring their concerns to the CBC management boards and the Board of Directors (CBC, Women’s Seminar Transcript, 205-206).

In fact, CBC executives had already formulated its response to the feminists at the seminar before it was even held. An internal document anticipated their criticisms. The CBC  response was to  emphasize the importance of its creative and journalistic independence and an understanding that, regardless of policy, changing sexist attitudes takes time. Therefore, any commitments Johnston made to the feminist groups must be effective and feasible in the short-term, so that the seminar would not be seen as an exercise in tokenism (Zimmerman Papers, F723, “CBC response,” undated, c. January 1979). After the seminar, in a memo to CBC staff, Johnston reaffirmed the priority of its  equal opportunity goals to place more women in decision-making positions. He also promised to  appoint “social affairs specialists” in English and French network TV news. The rest of Johnston’s directives had to do with establishing a programming policy on the portrayal of women (Johnson cited in CBC, Anonymous “Note to Staff,” April 25, 1979, 253-256).

The Follow-Up: Affirmative Action

The CBC’s Marguerite McDonald and Radio-Canada’s Danielle Levasseur were promoted to the “Social Affairs” positions by the following year. They were to focus on women’s issues among a number of other hot-button topics, including racism and homosexuality (Zimmerman Papers, File F725, W.T. Armstrong memo to staff, “Women in the CBC,” May 12, 1980, 2). In May 1980, the CBC sent an invitation to a promised, follow-up seminar to the same feminist women’s groups that had attended the first one (CBC, André Lamy memo to Peter Herrndorf, March 12, 1980) with an agenda that emphasized how much the CBC had accomplished to date (CBC, Telex to senior managers, May 16, 1980). The latest “top priority” goals in employment equity included instructions to managers to identify women with senior management and production potential in both radio and TV, and begin a series of training seminars for them (CBC, W. T. Armstrong memo, “Women in the CBC,” May 12, 1980). An internal working document noted that local and regional managers in the English Services Division (ESD), had been resistant to hiring women, because they still harbored prejudices against them, and were also afraid of the competition (CBC, Anonymous, “Equal Opportunity in ESD: Affirmative Action for Women,” April 29, 1980).

The Vice-president and General Manager, ESD , Peter Herrndorf, seemed determined to make some progress, judging by the handwritten notes on his stationary, apparently made at the time of the June 5, 1980 women’s seminar.  He wrote: “…can’t change portrayal until we seed women throughout the organization in high leverage jobs and high profile jobs (role models for others).” The goal was “a substantial increase over the next three years of women in key or influential roles” (CBC. P. Herrndorf handwritten notes, c. June 5, 1980).

In the months following the 1980 women’s seminar, the CBC established a formal affirmative action policy, giving women advantage over men with whom they were judged to be equally qualified (Zimmerman Papers, File F725, copy of A.W. Johnson memo, “CBC Affirmative Action Policy for Women,” October 30, 1980).  The goal was to increase the proportion of women in the CBC, then 29%, to equal their numbers in the labour force at 40% (CBC, anonymous, “Equal Opportunity in ESD: Affirmative Action for Women,” April 29, 1980). Local and regional managers identified 360 female employees across the country that could be trained for more positions in senior management and programming, up to and including executive producers. There was some urgency to helping them reach their potential because too many talented women, especially those on contract, had already left the CBC to seek better opportunities (CBC, S. Moss to R. J. Gurney, November 28, 1980).  A new fund allowed regional managers to hire more women on contract; for example, as program producers with training potential to become staff production executives (CBC, W. T. Armstrong memo to regional managers, Women’s Issues – Special Initiatives, August 1, 1980).

In the meantime, some newswomen  were appointed to higher profile, on-air positions, including Barbara Frum and Mary Lou Findlay as co-hosts of CBC-TV’s The Journal, and ten national network news reporters. Audiences had mixed reactions to their presence, according to a sardonic newspaper columnist (R. Shields, Toronto Star, March 27, 1982, J66), but they gave a public face to CBC’s affirmative action policies.

There were more women in management as well, the most senior of them being Betty Zimmerman, who had already served as the CBC’s Director of International Relations and was appointed the first female head of Radio Canada International in 1979, a term she served for ten years (S. Martin, “Betty Zimmerman,” Globe and Mail, February 12, 2009, S8).


This research to date strongly indicates that feminist critics did influence the CBC to improve its employment opportunities for women in news and current affairs, using the argument that as a public broadcaster it must adhere to the tenets laid down in the Broadcasting Act of 1968 and in its own policy. The CBC and Zimmerman documents demonstrate that management was slow to move on employment equity, but speeded up the process and embraced affirmative action when prodded by feminist interventions. There are yet more CBC sources to examine that might answer further questions about its organizational culture and its effect on female employees; for example, the influence of the federal government’s own equity policies in the public service. I am aware that they may shift my current perspective on the effectiveness of feminist influences inside and outside of the CBC but I hope the end result will be a strong contribution to the history of women journalists and broadcasters in the Canadian media.


[1] The papers of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Library and Archives Canada, RG41, are quite extensive and historical documents pertaining to women in the CBC are contained in many different volumes and files. Citations within the text will be limited to the immediate source and date where possible, while the references will include the correct acquisition, volume and file numbers/names for each one.

[2] Elizabeth Zimmerman Papers, Reader’s Digest Resource Centre, Special Collections, Carleton University, Ottawa. These papers cover Zimmerman’s career, including her years as director of Radio Canada International, 1979-1989, as well as her role in encouraging the progress of women in the CBC and improving its policies on the portrayal of women.


Bruce, Jean. (1981-82). Women in CBC Radio Talks and Current Affairs, Canadian Oral History Association Journal, 5(1), p. 7-18.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. 1975. Women in the CBC. Report of the Task Force on the Status of Women. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Freeman, Barbara. M. (2011). Beyond Bylines – Media Workers and Women’s Rights in Canada. Kitchener-Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Freeman, Barbara M. (2001). The Satellite Sex – The Media and Women’s Issues in English Canada, 1966-1971. Kitchener-Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Kirby, Blaik. (1974). “Television: Will CRTC hearings really affect CBC fare?” The Globe & Mail, February 23, p. 31. ProQuest Historical Newspapers, Canada’s Heritage database, Carleton University Library. [March 15, 2017].

Laplanche, Laurie. (2015). Le Service des émissions féminines télévisées au réseau francophone de la Société Radio-Canada (1965-1982): une histoire du genre dans les organisations. Journal of the Canadian Historical Association / Revue de la Société historique du Canada, 26(1), p. 225-254. URI: DOI: 10.7202/1037203ar [February 27, 2017].

Laplanche, Laurie. (2016). Pour vous, mesdames… et messieurs. Production des émissions féminines à la Société Radio-Canada à Montréal (1952-1982). Promotion, conception des publics et culture organisationnelle genres. Thèse de doctorat non publiée, Université Laval. URL:  [September 26, 2017].

Martin, Sandra. (2009). Betty Zimmerman, 85, Radio Executive:  Broadcast Pioneer led Radio Canada International. The Globe and Mail, February 12, p. S.8. . ProQuest Historical Newspapers, Canada’s Heritage database, Carleton University Library. [March 15, 2017].

McCallum, Peggy. (1978). “CRTC license: Hearing told CBC is unfair to women,” The Globe and Mail, October 11, p. 15. ProQuest Historical Newspapers, Canada’s Heritage database, Carleton University Library. [March 15, 2017].

Rex, Kay. (1974). “CBC programming blasted by women in 87-page brief,” The Globe & Mail, February 14, p. W2. ProQuest Historical Newspapers, Canada’s Heritage database, Carleton University Library. [March 15, 2017].

Robinson, Gertrude. J. (2005). Gender, Journalism and Equity: Canadian, U.S., and European Perspectives. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Shields, Roy. (1982). Between The National and The Journal, there is an on-air sisterhood, Toronto Star, May 27, p. J66. ProQuest Historical Newspapers, Toronto Star: Pages of the Past database, Carleton University Library. [March 15, 2017].

Taylor, Alison. (1985). Window on the World:  A History of Women in CBC Radio Talks and Public Affairs, 1936-1966. Unpublished thesis, Master of Arts, Carleton University.

Trimble, Linda. (1990). Coming soon to a station near you?: The CRTC policy on sex-role stereotyping.  Canadian Public Policy / Analyse de Politiques, 16,(3), p. 326-338.

Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press on behalf of Canadian Public Policy. URL: [March 27, 2017].


Library and Archives Canada (LAC). Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), RG 41.

CBC, Anonymous. “Note to Staff,” April 25, 1979. Acc #2000-01349-X, Volume 1, Transcript, Seminar on the portrayal of women in the CBC.  February 22-23, 1979.

CBC, Anonymous. Equal Opportunity in ESD: Affirmative Action for Women,” April 29, 1980. Acc #2005-00370-0, reference disk A201600688-12-20_14-20-21, Volume 43, file “CBC Office of Equal Opportunity (Women’s Issues), Women’s Seminar.”

CBC, Armstrong, W. T. Memo to regional managers, Women’s Issues – Special Initiatives, August 1, 1980. Acc #2005-00370-0, reference disk A201600688-12-20_14-20-21, Volume 43, file “CBC Office of Equal Opportunity (Women’s Issues), Women’s Seminar.”

CBC. Herrndorf, P.  Handwritten notes, c. June 5, 1980. Acc #2005-00370-0, reference disk A201600688-12-20_14-20-21, Volume 43, file “CBC Office of Equal Opportunity (Women’s Issues), Women’s Seminar.”

CBC, Information Programming – A Statement of Policy, May 29, 1972. Volume 957, File 1301.

CBC, Johnson, A. W. Memo to Lalonde, Marc. Minister Responsible for the Status of Women, November 29, 1977. Volume 995, A.W. Johnson, chronological correspondence, File “November and December, 1977.”

CBC, Lamy, André. Memo to Herrndorf, Peter. March 12, 1980. Volume 43, file “CBC Office of Equal Opportunity (Women’s Issues), Women’s Seminar.”

CBC, Moss, S. to Gurney, R. J. November 28, 1980. Acc #2005-00370-0, reference disk A201600688-12-20_14-20-21, Volume 43, file “CBC Office of Equal Opportunity (Women’s Issues), Women’s Seminar.”

CBC, Telex to senior managers, May 16, 1980. Acc #2005-00370-0, reference disk A201600688-12-20_14-18-38, Volume 43, file “Women’s Seminar.”

CBC, Three Key Priorities – the 1980s. Volume 979, File 6 (Planning 1975-1978).

CBC, Transcript of the 1978 CRTC Hearings, Vol. VIII, 2275-2277. Volume 44, Folder 1.

CBC, Transcript, Seminar on The Portrayal of Women in CBC Programming, February 22, 23, 1979. Acc #2000-01349-X, Volume 1.

Carleton University, Reader’s Digest Resource Centre, Special Collections. Elizabeth Zimmerman Papers.

Armstrong, W. T. Memo to staff. Women in the CBC, May 12, 1980. File F725.

CBC response, undated, c. January 1979. File 723.

CBC Secretariat Corporate Policy No. 6, Equal Opportunity of Employment in the CBC, October 25, 1977. File F714.

CBC Task Force on the Status of Women, Recommendations and Implementation, January 1979, File F723.

Johnson, A. W. Memo to staff, CBC Affirmative Action Policy for Women, October 30, 1980. File F725.


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