This International Women’s Day, experts urge governments to ‘lean in’
It may be 2017, but according to a recent Minerva Foundation report, it will take another 75 years at today’s rate of change to close the earnings gap between men and women. Compared to the rest of the world, most western women are immensely privileged – yet 108 years after the first Women’s Day event was held in New York City, Canadian women earn 72 cents for each dollar a man earns for similar full-time work.
“There is a misconception that because women have the vote, access to equal education and reproductive rights, somehow the job is done,” says Anuradha Dugal, director of Violence Prevention Programs at the Canadian Women’s Foundation. “On paper, we have equal rights, but they’re not adding up to equal outcomes.
“It isn’t because women aren’t working hard enough or aren’t asking for enough. It’s not about women’s individual capacity to ‘lean in’ – it’s about systemic barriers.”
Many people try to explain the gender pay gap by suggesting that because men are working more hours, they are naturally reaping the financial benefits. But this ignores a systemic barrier: when men are spending more hours at work, Ms. Dugal points out, it is generally made possible by a partner who is taking on the bulk of unpaid work at home.
“Women are still working a double day,” agrees Dr. Kate McInturff, a senior researcher at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA). Equitable participation in the paid workforce requires access to affordable daycare, she stresses. “Our governments have an important role to play in making sure that women can get out the door in the morning.”
Inequitable distribution of paid and unpaid work also explains only a portion of the pay gap. A recent OECD report found that all known drivers – including women not asking for higher pay, different job characteristics and less responsibility – account for only about 60 per cent of the gap. “When you put that against the fact that most women now have more education than men, it leaves a huge, unexplained difference,” says Ms. Dugal.
If all that isn’t disheartening enough, there is this: the women earning 72 cents on the dollar are the fortunate ones. About 40 per cent of women in the Canadian economy are engaged in non-standard work, which means they are likely to work part-time and are unlikely to have job security or benefits. Statistics Canada research reveals that just under a million women in Canada are working part-time involuntarily, because they are unable to find full-time employment.
At every stage of life, women are much more likely to live in poverty, and children of households led by single women are the most impoverished in Canada. Generations continue to grow up with the chronic stress and instability of financial insecurity, which impacts health and economic opportunity throughout their lifespan.
The first step in meaningful change is to stop thinking about women as dependents, says Dr. McInturff. “Policy-makers, businesses and economists still tend to treat women’s jobs and wages as secondary, but the era of the male breadwinner is over. Women need to pay rent and buy groceries, and their rent and groceries do not cost 30 per cent less.”
Two-thirds of minimum wage earners are women, so living wage legislation would have a dramatic impact, as would economic development programs that focus on sectors where women tend to work, such as health care and education, she stresses. “Almost a million women in Canada work part-time involuntarily. Where is the infrastructure program that is going to move them into full-time, living wage work?”
Poverty, earnings equity and gender violence are also linked, notes Ms. Dugal. “When a woman leaves her home to escape an abusive partner, she typically comes out of the situation far worse off economically,” she says.
“Governments at every level need to make significant contributions to putting an end to sexual violence in Canada,” says Dr. McInturff. “Women need to be safe in their homes and in public. Why would a woman run for office, when she can see the violent harassment that even the most powerful women in Canada are subject to?
“The federal government needs to put its money where its feminism is in 2017.”
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