Women in the Canadian Economy: What’s Standing in the Way of Equality?

Last weekend, I spoke at a community event celebrating International Women’s Day in Vancouver. It got me thinking about the status of women in the Canadian economy, reflecting both on the successes over the last half century and on the areas where work is still needed to achieve gender equality.

As a young woman in Canada, I have not felt discriminated against. Throughout my university career, my gender didn’t seem to matter and professors encouraged me to pursue a PhD and the life of an academic as much as any of my male fellow students. Growing up in Bulgaria was a different story – my own mother stopped me from going to a physics-based high school program at home because she felt that physics in not for women (those were her words). As an electrical engineer herself, she obviously had experienced discrimination and wanted to prevent me from going down that same road.

In Canada, however, I didn’t get any of that. Maybe it’s because I live in Vancouver, but what I hear Canadians tell their girls is that they can grow up to become anything they aspire to — rocket scientists, surgeons or presidents. Many of the young women I meet feel similarly – they feel that they are free to make choices and say they are as much in control of their career paths as their male friends.

Yet, when we look at the numbers, women are not growing up to be rocket scientists, surgeons or presidents. Nurses, teachers and social workers is more like it. Women are woefully underrepresented in “non-traditional” occupations such as high-level management and natural sciences. Even in the public sector, where women make up the majority of the workforce, they’re less likely to hold senior management jobs than men.

Yes, there are some women in leadership positions in areas that were previously closed to our gender in politics, business and academia. But they are few and far between.

So, if young women feel that gender is irrelevant for economic success, then why are women’s average annual earnings for full-time, full-year work in 2007 only 71 .4% of men’s? Why are average hourly wages so different: in January 2010, women got paid on average $20.59 per hour, compared to men’s $24.49? Why do women continue to be overrepresented in low-wage jobs? Over 60% of minimum wage workers are women and the proportion of workers earning under $10 per hour is similar.

It would seem that something happens somewhere along the line between school, when the sky’s the limit, and the demands of real life which pushes women into traditional sectors. The older I get, the more convinced I become that this something is children. Or rather, that it’s the outdated family policy that we have in Canada (and the US) that forces women to choose between motherhood and career or economic success.

Recent studies from the US show that in corporate America, childless women’s earnings are on par with men’s, and the earning discrepancies appear when women start having children. Research by Statistics Canada shows that having children is associated with an earnings loss that persists throughout a woman’s working career. At any given age, women with one child earned about 9% on average than childless women, while those with two children earner 12% less, and those with three or more children earned 20% less. The earning gap was larger for women with higher education than for those who only had high school diplomas. Curiously, this parental penalty does not seem to apply to men – men with children earn more on average than childless men.

The more I dig into the research, the more it seems that women with children earn less because they end up taking years away from work. And the reason that they are often forced to do so is that women remain the primary caregivers for children and we lack the social supports to allow women to work and care at the same time. Changing this would require a concerted effort by governments and the private sector.

What governments have control over is Canada’s family policy, and it is sorely in need of change to catch up to social realities of the 21st century – many women with children work, whether by choice or by necessity, and we need to put in place adequate programs to support these women and their families.

Providing accessible childcare that families can afford is an obvious one. Improving parental leave provisions is another way to improve many women’s lives. Statistics Canada quotes a recent survey showing that 40% of new parents could not take the entire parental leave because their family’s financial situation required them to go back to work. Increasing benefit amounts to reflect costs of living would be a great start.

Employers will also have to adapt, and we’ve already started to see some of that. More and more employers allow flexible working hours, opportunities to work from home and an increased availability of part time work. These are all changes that make it possible for women to care for children without having to completely withdraw from the workforce for years at a time.

Some companies are even in the business of raising awareness that women have not achieved nearly equal representation on the top of organizations both in the private sector and in government. McKinsey & Company is probably the largest and best-known professional services firm that is calling attention to the shortage of women in leadership positions in America’s businesses. Their reports, Women Matter and Women Matter 2, demonstrate some important relationships between the presence of women in corporate leadership roles and the financial performance of organizations and explore why that may be the case. This is a good start, but more work needs to be done.

The need to support women to work and to care would only become more pressing as the population ages and we start to experience labour force shortages. We need the women to fully participate in the labour market, as workers and as decision-makers. Changing family policy and making workplaces more flexible is the way to do it.

So go ahead and continue telling the girls that the sky’s the limit, but let’s also make sure that it’s really true.

Happy international women’s day to all.


  • Women will be essential to the liberation of humanity, keeping us second-class ensures their bottom line and making sure it doesn’t happen.

  • women are not growing up to be surgeons

    I understand the majority of medical doctors graduating are women.

    I’m not sure how increasing maturity benefits so they can spend more time away from work will improve woman’s long term income and career prospects, not that I think it is a bad idea.

  • Oh I do see very clearly how increasing maturity benefits will help women out in their long term career prospects.

    Basically changing the culture of the workplace so it is more openly acceptable for workers to have more flexibility in schedules and leave.

    It one could gravitate to the understanding that we are trying to have a society as well as an economy then it becomes quite clear.

    Unfortunately things like Statcan cutting all the unpaid work questions from the next census will prevent many gravitating to such levels. As many know there was quite a fight by women’s groups getting all those unpaid work questions into the census, and seemingly they have quite easily been excluded.

  • @ Darwin:
    The problem with women taking time away from work is not that the leave is too long, it’s that they actually sever ties with the working world completely and have to start from zero when they are ready to come back to work. It’s much easier to re-enter the labour force if you have a job to go back to after an extended maternity leave than if you had to actually quit because you need a few weeks more than the leave provides or if for various reasons you don’t qualify for a leave.

    Being able to put in some PT hours from home while your child is very young would also be tremendously helpful in keeping professional women current in their field.

    @ Paul:
    I think we’re already seeing a big improvement in the way of work flexibility in the professional services industry in particular. Lots of large companies are starting to offer sabbaticals and extended leave provisions for people to pursue hobbies/travel/etc. This way it becomes more acceptable for people to take time off work period, regardless or whether it is for having children or for doing whatever. And this is good on so many fronts. We should work to live, not live to work.

    Much of the flexibility and workplace culture changes would only benefit women who have high levels of education and work in what is considered “professional” type jobs. To the extent that studies find these women to have larger earning losses associated with having children, it’s a big step forward for them (us).

    There are many other women, however, who work in low wage jobs who can’t telecommute and aren’t offered flexibility perks. These are the women who most need extended mat leave with a higher level of income replacement benefits.

  • @ Darwin:
    Women make up the majority of med school graduates, but they tend to work in family practice rather than become specialists. They’re particularly underrepresented in the surgical specialties, which is why I said that they don’t grow up to become surgeons.

  • your so right, I should have mentioned that.

    I just finished a couple reports on export processing zones with factories and factories filled up with mostly women.

    I am sure the culture change and flexibility argument would fall quite quickly to the floor with a thud and I will be promptly escorted out the door with and labelled and idiot by these workers. Damn most of these women can;t get a pee break let alone some time away for children needs or geriatric homecare or the many dimensions of unpaid work, mainly performed by women.

    Okay did I just call myself an idiot? Right then.

  • @ Paul:
    I explicitly stated that the flexibility stuff only applies to professionals. This doesn’t make it irrelevant, just not universal.

    In addition, this post and the entire discussion has to do with the situation of women in Canada and other rich countries, where we’ve already won a certain basic level of rights and freedoms. That’s why I chose the title the way I did.

    In the developing world, well, it’s a different world. And my discussion above does not even begin to address the problems there.

  • A big challenge in the labour market is that part-time work, which is much desired by mothers, is not typically a career. Perhaps shorter work weeks for all could make for better work-life balance and better gender division of labour in households.

    I’d also like to see more emphasis on policies that encourage men to stay at home with the kids. In some Nordic countries, and Quebec, a portion of parental leave is allocated to fathers on a use-it-or-lose-it basis. And many men seem to be taking advantage of that.

  • apparently you haven’t been to some of the southern states these days or for that matter I would argue in some places in Canada as well, there is a large underclass of women workers.

    Take for example the proliferation of call centers, retail trade, accomodation and food services and the cleaning services industry. I am not so sure I would agree that we won that basica rights and freedom arguement.

    Unionization is definitely a great equalizer, however many women in these industries are largely unorganized.

    I am still syuck on the cultural aspects, I don;t have the numbers right on me, but why is it still acceptable to have a a female dominant component to minimum wage?

    My point- there is plenty of work to do in the many sectors of pay for women.

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