The economic costs of gender inequality

This year, March 8 marked both International Women’s Day and the Day Without a Woman general strike in the United States, an event designed to draw attention to the ways women of all backgrounds contribute to society. The day served as an opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of women and recognize the barriers women still face.

Since the first women’s suffrage movements in the late 1800s, waves of feminists have challenged their role in society, and torn down barriers to achieve some degree of equality. Many called for change in the labour market, and argued for gender parity and equity in the workplace.

Finally, economic parity and solidarity are the main focus for many organizations this year, as the issue of equal pay for equal work has become a more prominent political issue.   

But with the mainstreaming of feminism, do women still face barriers when entering the labour market? And how has the labour market responded in turn?

Working girls

The second wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s in Canada brought to light the economic dimension of the sexist status quo. By demanding equal pay and equal opportunity, women began to assert themselves as capable of contributing to the economy.

The attitude that was characteristic of many women throughout the 60s and 70s was that they could “have it all”.

University of Ottawa common law professor Debra Steger recounted what it felt like growing up during those years.

“We had really high hopes, women could do anything. We had so much fire and determination to do it.”

As the movement gained momentum, advocates began to reap the rewards of their efforts. Canada answered the call for gender parity in the workplace by creating an Employment Standards Act. The act was intended to decrease gender discrimination in the workplace and ensured that women and men would receive equal pay for equal work.  

Furthermore, the movement brought about calls for educational reform that would incorporate curricula relevant to women as well as men. These education reforms stressed the importance of including curriculum based on women’s history and issues in order to acknowledge the barriers they have overcome and continue to face.

By the 1980s, as “Working Girls” flooded the workforce, gender-based discrimination seemed a thing of the past. Everything was better now, right?

In addition to the changes brought forth by the Women’s Movement, the number of Canadian women going on to post-secondary education increased dramatically. Additionally, Canada adjusted policies regarding childcare and taxes to accommodate women’s involvement in the workforce, and allowed for women to work and care for a family.

According to Statistics Canada, Canadian women now account for nearly half of the Canadian workforce. As women continue to enter the workforce, their participation produces quick economic growth, as well as stability and development.

So if women are receiving higher education, obtaining jobs and equitable treatment from employers, what’s the issue?

Where did the women go?

While women are becoming a growing part of the Canadian economy, they continue to face gender inequities and other barriers that limit their economic opportunities. The majority, more than 45 per cent, work in low paying occupations, such as administrative positions and sales jobs.

According to the former director of Economic Development Programs for the Canadian Women’s Foundation, Chanel Grenaway, 1.5 million women in Canada live on a low income as a result. Not to mention that some groups are much more likely to live in poverty than others.

“For example, 37 per cent of First Nations women living off reserve live in poverty, 28 per cent of visible minority women live in poverty, 33 per cent of women with disabilities live in poverty, 21 per cent of single parent mothers live in poverty, and 16 per cent of single senior women live in poverty.”

Since the 1960s and 1970s, a high volume of women entered administration jobs, healthcare service positions and the field of education. As of 2016, not much has changed, according to Statistics Canada. Women continue to outnumber men in those domains, but remain elusive in STEM jobs, transportation, and the manufacturing sector. 

According to Armine Yalnizyan, a senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, there are two current issues with the gender-segregated nature of Canada’s economy. The first being that women tend to work in the caring and education fields, and men in industries such as construction, utilities, and primary resource extraction. Secondly male-dominated fields are valued more because they are more “capital intensive.”  

“It is logical to put it that way on the one hand,” said Yalnizyan. “On the other hand it’s just weird that we value the reproduction of the species essentially … as less important as producing stuff that people can consume.”

While some circumstances have changed, women still continue to deal with barriers involving career advancement and development.

“What’s not happening is that they are not being promoted into top positions or leadership roles. They might get that job in the first place,” said Steger. “But the issue is promotion, advancement, or even being given responsibilities.”

In Canada, women hold approximately 8.5 per cent of the highest paid positions, comprise 18 per cent of senior corporate positions, and 20 per cent of board positions. However, in the most recently published list of Canada’s 100 highest paid CEOs, only two women were on the list.

“Women are also more likely to be moving in and out of the workforce compared to menmaternity leave is one example,” said Grenaway.  “This is part of the ‘glass ceiling’ issue: men are often able to stay in the workforce continually, thus keeping an unbroken focus on advancing their careers.”  

Despite asserting themselves as economic forces and joining men in a large portion of the labour market, women still continue to make less money than their male counterparts. Even though policies such as the Employee Standards Act have been established to eliminate the obvious formal barriers to pay equity, the gender wage gap is still problematic.

A gaping hole in the Employee Standards Act

Despite the progression of feminist issues, women still make less money on average than men for the same work. The problem hasn’t disappeared, and the gap doesn’t seem to be getting much smaller.

The Employee Standards Act is based on the concept that men and women must receive equal pay for jobs that are substantially the same.

So in theory, men and women who do the same job should be paid the same amount. The issue is that the Act has a major loophole: If the duties or title of job were adjusted, the pay may be impacted.

Thus, pay differences may emerge on the basis that the job a man has compared to a woman is different. But however minute these differences are is irrelevant. Some provinces, such as Quebec and Ontario had instituted policies to ensure that this loophole is closed. For example, Ontario institutes the Pay Equity Act which stipulates equal pay for jobs that are “comparable in value based on skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions”. Unfortunately, on a federal level, the loophole still exists.

Grenaway indicated that “women who work full-time earn about 74 cents for every dollar earned by men. This number is even lower for some groups, such as racialized or Indigenous women.”

While men and women may earn different wages for jobs that are only slightly different, another contribution to the wage gap comes from the fact that women make up 59 per cent of Canada’s minimum wage earners, despite having higher levels of education than men.

However, according to Yalnizyan, both the Employment Standards Act and Pay Equity Act were “really germane” in terms of employment opportunities for women and closing the wage gap.

“Both pieces of legislation they’ve either been functionally abandoned or challenged in the courts,” she said. Instead, the repatriation of the Constitution and the introduction of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 made the most substantial change, said Yalnizyan.

Section 28 of the Charter states that “Notwithstanding anything in this Charter, the rights and freedoms referred to in it are guaranteed equally to male and female persons.” Section 28 is also important because it is not subject to the notwithstanding clause that allows Parliament and provincial legislatures to override other parts of the Charter.  

It’s lonely at the top

Around the globe, women are becoming more and more involved in politics. Currently, there are 18 female world leaders in countries like Germany, Argentina, and Poland.  In Canada, upon his election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau even went so far as to create a gender equal cabinet.

While the presence of women in leadership roles has become noticeably larger for some countries, it is hard to dismiss the fact that the capabilities of female leaders are often called to question on the basis of gender. For Steger, there seems to be a stark contrast between how women in these roles are treated compared to their male counterparts.

“When we do see women in leadership roles, I don’t think they receive the respect that they deserve or the same respect that men do,” she said. “Women politicians and women leaders receive a lot of harassment.

Unfortunately, this kind of harassment also takes place in the workplace and impacts both men and women. Women generally experience more sexual harassment in the workplace, which can greatly influence job involvement, absenteeism, and job satisfaction.

“Quite beyond (sexual harassment) is sexual violence towards women which affects a very large number of women and does change their economic prospects,” said Yalnizyan. “Sexual harassment in the workplace, while important, is not as important as the larger safety and security issue of women and which may hamper their ability to function at their full potential.”

The future is female?

As women around the world continue to strive toward equality in the workplace, increasing female involvement in the labour market may have tremendous benefits to the economy.

Reports indicate that if the participation of women in the workforce equalled the participation of men, the global economy could grow by $28 trillion dollars by 2025. The Canadian economy has also felt the effects of the growing number of working women. Over the last 30 years, Canadian women have increased annual economic activity by $130 billion.

But the climb toward gender parity in Canada may be getting a bit steeper.  

In a report published last year by the World Economic Forum, Canada took 35th place out of 144 countries for gender parity.  The ranking from the previous year was 30th, and the drop may be attributed to a decrease in female legislators, officials, and managers. Other reports have noted that the gender wage gap in Canada is double the global gap.  

As politicians continue to be called on for solutions to closing the gender gap, the Canadian federal government has pledged support to increasing  women’s rights. As the Trudeau government continues to address gender parity concerns, time will only tell if policies will be developed to eliminate the disparity.

The next steps toward gender parity aren’t clear, but for Yalnizyan, budgetary initiatives that take on a gendered approach may be a step in the right direction.

I hope they’re very serious about changing their approach to budgeting, because if they do it will make a big difference not only to the economy and the tax-base as a consequence but in the lives of men, and women, and children across the country,” said Yalnizyan. “It’s for that reason I hope that they walk the talk of being a feminist government.”  

—with files from Nadia Drissi El-Bouzaidi