September 23rd marked the beginning of the very first Gender Equality Week in Canada, aimed at celebrating the progress Canada has made in advancing gender equality while also reflecting on the work that remains to be done. Bill C-309, which became law earlier this year, designates the fourth week of September each year as Gender Equality Week.
While Canada has made many advances toward gender equality, Gender Equality Week is a good time to examine how we are doing when it comes to economic equality.
Unfortunately, women continue to face systemic and structural barriers to meaningful equality in the workplace, criminal justice system, social assistance, and society at large. When it comes to the workplace, women in Canada face some distinct challenges in achieving economic equality.
Discussion about women’s economic rights often centres around the gender wage gap – that is, the difference between women’s and men’s earnings in the workplace. Even though women are generally more educated than men in Canada (making up around 60 per cent of university graduates), a significant gap continues to exist. The statistics are especially alarming with respect to the earnings of women who are racialized, immigrants, Indigenous or living with a disability. According to data from our most recent census, women with disabilities earn around 44 cents for every dollar that full-time male workers earn; immigrant women earn 45 cents; Indigenous women earn 55 cents; and racialized women earn 60 cents. On average, women across Canada earn 68 cents on the dollar when compared to men.
The differences, when compounded over a lifetime of work, can amount to extraordinary limitations on a woman’s ability to save, support a family, leave a violent domestic partner, or break free from the cycle of poverty. And because women generally live longer than men, they are forced to stretch out what savings they have over a longer period of time, which has resulted in higher rates of poverty for women who are seniors.
But the gender wage gap is the symptom, not the disease. It is symptomatic of systemic barriers and attitudes that inhibit women’s equal and secure participation in the workforce and, in turn, an equal wage. Those barriers include:
- Lack of support for family caregiving responsibilities: Women generally continue to be primary caregivers for children and elderly relatives, and spend on average twice as many hours per week as men on child care. And with the cost of child care in Canada being among the highest of OECD countries – dual income families on average spend about 15 percent of their net income on child care, while single parents on average spend almost a third of their income on child care – women with children are more likely to work part-time or to stay at home.
- Rise of precarious work: The Canadian workforce has become increasingly characterized by non-standard employment relationships, such as short term or precarious contract work, instead of stable, full-time jobs. The consequences are serious: PEPSO’s 2013 report for the Greater Toronto Area found that precariously employed workers earn about 46% less than those in stable full-time employment. These workers also rarely receive health benefits or other employment-related benefits, are provided fewer opportunities for promotion, often hold down more than one job, and commonly work on call. And since women are less able to access stable full-time jobs, in part due to the household labour that they are still largely expected to do, precarious work has a disproportionate impact on them.
- Undervaluing of women’s work: Occupations where workers are predominantly female, such as cashiers or day care workers, tend to be lower paid than occupations where the workers are predominantly male, such as construction work.
- Discrimination: Ontario’s Human Rights Code prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of sex, gender, gender expression and gender identity. But the sad reality is that conscious and unconscious biases against women – particularly racialized or Indigenous women – mean that they are overlooked for hiring and promotion. Those biases can include the assumption that women will have children and take maternity leave one or more times, and become less valuable or productive contributors to their jobs. And women who look for a job while visibly pregnant can face enormous difficulty in securing employment. Much of the time, employers will not explicitly express or even be aware of discriminatory attitudes, which makes it difficult to address them and to enforce the Code.
- Insufficient support from Employment Insurance: Precariously employed workers, including part-time and temporary non-seasonal workers, often do not qualify for Employment Insurance because they do not meet eligibility criteria requiring them to have worked a specified number of hours within a specified timeframe. This means that the most vulnerable workers – who are disproportionately women and disproportionately women who are racialized, immigrants, Indigenous or living with a disability – cannot access a critical benefit to support their efforts to re-enter the labour market and find more permanent stable employment.
What can we do?
Last year the provincial government made important changes to the Employment Standards Act through Bill 148, with the goal of improving the working conditions and security of precarious workers. These changes included raising the minimum wage to $15 and guaranteed equal pay for temporary and part-time workers. These reforms are under threat with the new government. It is critical that Ontario implement the $15 minimum wage as promised on January 1, 2019 and maintain last year’s reforms, as these are necessary steps towards women’s economic equality. For information on how to get involved in the campaign to preserve Bill 148, visit http://www.15andfairness.org.
The previous provincial government also enacted Bill 3, The Pay Transparency Act, 2018, which will require employers to make information about employee compensation more accessible starting January 1, 2019. We need to support this and other similar legislation that is crucial to improving women’s economic equality in Canada.
Women in Canada also need stronger social supports. A national childcare program would go a long way to helping women participate more fully and equally in the labour market. So would improving Canada’s social safety net – for example, by amending Employment Insurance eligibility criteria to recognize workers in non-standard employment. Meanwhile, health coverage for prescription drugs, vision and dental care, and mental health services for those who lack such coverage would help keep workers healthy and reduce the burden on our healthcare system when treatable health issues worsen into more serious illnesses.
When we protect women’s economic rights, the economy grows, families become healthier, and poverty rates decrease. As the hashtag for Gender Equality Week indicates, #EveryoneBenefits when we empower and support women to participate fully in society.
Nabila Qureshi is a staff lawyer at ISAC and works on test case litigation relating to employment law and workers’ rights, poverty law, and income security.