WOMEN IN THE WORKFORCE: Still a long way from Equity

Article by Elizabeth Ha

Some people see the issue of economic equality for women as rather outdated, out of tune with a supposed new world of opportunity that has opened up with higher education for women and a more equal division of work between women and men. Yet the fact of the matter is that, after many years of progress through the 1970s and 1980s, the gender wage gap in Canada has remained stuck since the mid 1990s at one of the highest levels in the advanced industrial world.

In 2005, the most recent year for which we have figures, women working full-time for the full year earned an average of $39,200, or 70.5% as much as comparable men who earned an average of $55,700. In the mid 1990s, such women earned 72% as much as men. The pay gap is even greater for university-educated women, who earned just 68% as much as men in 2005, down from 75% a decade ago. The gender pay gap in Canada is the fifth greatest in the advanced industrial (OECD) countries and even bigger than in the US.

Strikingly, the pay gap has grown rather than narrowed even as women have become more highly educated than men, and even as most women have decided to have fewer children, later in life. Fully half of women aged 25 to 44 now have a post secondary qualification, compared to 40% of men, and the education gap is even bigger among young people. Women are participating in the paid labour force at higher levels than ever before, and very few women now drop out of paid work for very extended periods of time. But, the pay gap persists and grows.

One key reason for the gender wage gap is that women without high levels of education (or whose credentials are unrecognized in Canada) are much more likely than men to be employed in very low-paid and insecure, part-time and temporary jobs, especially in private sector sales and service jobs. More than one in five women aged 25 to 54, the peak earnings years, make less than $12 per hour, almost double the proportion of men. Working women, especially recent immigrant women of colour, have suffered most from the failure of governments to maintain adequate minimum wages and employment standards to protect low paid and precarious workers.

When it comes to better-paid jobs, women are still largely excluded from blue collar jobs, especially in the skilled trades. But a large and growing layer of women have indeed moved into professional and skilled technical jobs, in education, health care and other community and public services. But these women are still paid less than comparable men, and are significantly under-represented in very well-paid jobs. More than three in four of the earners making at least $89,000 per year (the top 5% of the Canadian workforce) are men, and men are still three times more likely than women to be senior managers.

Public services employ 29% of all women compared to 17% of men (and the gap is even greater if we take account of the community social services sector.) Women have, accordingly, borne most of the impacts of privatization and contracting-out to the private sector, where wages are lower and wage gaps are much greater. Pay equity laws can make a difference, but attempts to equalize wages between male and female-dominated job classifications have generally stalled even though discrimination remains apparent.

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