Canada’s gender wage gap shows little sign of closing

Three UAlberta experts explain why Canada has fallen to 35th among industrialized nations.


While there may be much to celebrate this International Women’s Day, it’s unlikely anyone is raising a glass to how much Canadian women are paid.

New Statistics Canada data released today show wage disparity between genders is not improving. Women still make only 74 cents for every dollar made by their male counterparts overall—a figure that rises to 88 cents when you take away the fact that men work more hours than women.

And according to the World Economic Forum, our country has fallen to 35th place among industrialized nations, down from 14th in 2006. According to one OECD measure of median wages, Canada now has the 7th widest gender wage gap, wider than the United States and much of Europe.

Within Canada, Alberta falls dead last among provinces, according to Stats Canada.

“I actually think (the pay equity gap is) getting worse because we stopped paying attention to it as a problem, at least until the Liberals were elected federally and the NDP provincially,” said Lise Gotell, a professor of women’s studies at the University of Alberta.

Who’s minding the gap?

One significant setback, said Gotell, was the Harper Conservatives’ 40-per-cent cut to the budget of Status of Women Canada—an agency that promotes women’s equality—in 2006 along with the removal of equality from its mandate. To this day, despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s pro-feminist stance, there is no federal mechanism to properly track or correct gender inequality among government departments and agencies.

“And in Alberta, before the election of Rachel Notley as premier, the government had an official stance of gender neutrality,” said Gotell. “That meant they did not do a gendered analysis of public policy or budget measures.”

There are two main drivers accounting for Canada’s wage gap, said Gotell. First, though more women have moved into the labour market in recent years, they are still doing twice as much unpaid work as men, such as caring for children and seniors, and domestic labour. As a result, she said, they are more likely to work in the kinds of jobs required to take on that burden—often lower paying and part time.

“If you want to enhance the economic equality of women, child care has the potential with the biggest payoff,” said Gotell. “The Royal Commission on the Status of Women recommended a national public daycare system in 1970, and we’re still waiting for it.”

That helps explain why Canada falls behind so many Western European countries, said sociologist Michelle Maroto.

“They do a better job of supporting families and providing child care. There have been recent cross-national studies on the pay gap and motherhood penalty that show countries with better maternal leave and child-care policies had almost no gap at all versus other countries,” Maroto noted.

Undervalued resource in the resource industry

A second big factor for the gap is occupational segregation, said Maroto. Women still take on a disproportionate share of traditionally feminized occupations, such as clerical work, caregiving and positions in the service industry.

“And that’s not necessarily due to any intrinsic lack of value in those jobs; it’s just often that work done by men is seen to be more valuable than work done by women,” she said.

It’s a predicament that is exacerbated in the natural resource sector, added sociologist Sara Dorow, who has done research on wage disparity in Alberta’s oilpatch. As with the trades, transport, construction and manufacturing, jobs in the oil industry have long been masculinized. It’s one of the reasons for the wider wage gap in Alberta, despite the province’s low unemployment rate before the recent economic downturn.

“In my research in work camps in Fort McMurray, it's rare to run across a woman who is working in the trades. It’s a trend that runs throughout the system—who goes into apprenticeship programs, who is enticed into training programs and what is the culture of those workplaces."

Even among men and women doing the same job for the same number of hours, however, there is still disparity, a factor StatsCan calls “unidentified.” But according to Maroto, it comes down to employer bias and discrimination—which often leaves women caught in a catch-22 predicament.

She said women might be seen as more passive or more devoted to family, rather than as go-getters or hunters.

“But employers might also not like female employees who ‘lean in’ and are more aggressive. So you can be penalized for taking time out to take care of children and prioritize family, but you’re also penalized for taking on more masculine roles.”

Gotell, Maroto and Dorow all said they were disheartened by the same old story that comes up every year with few signs of hope. Indeed, the World Economic Forum says that globally, it will take another 170 years to close the wage gap at the current rate of change. All the more reason, say the U of A experts, for continuing to beat the drum.

“If you don’t talk about the fact you have a gender wage gap, and if you don’t think about it politically and in terms of policy, you’re not going to solve the problem,” said Gotell.