Canada has historically been recognized as a leader in women’s rights, but a report published by Oxfam last week suggests that progress in women’s participation in the Canadian economy has ground to a halt over the last two decades.
We’re not closing the wage gap, at least not quickly—women employed full-time have earned about 20 percent less than men for at least the last ten years—and, even if more and more Canadian women are getting university degrees and working fulltime, we’re not breaking the glass ceiling. In fact, we may be nowhere close.
Canada fell to 20th place in the United Nations Development Program’s gender index in 2013 after ranking first from 1997 to 2001. At current rates of improvement, we won’t close the gender gap in men’s and women’s earnings, as well as the gap in the number of female managers, until 2084, reported a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives study last year.
What the fuck is going on, Canada? What’s up with these statistics and why aren’t Canadian women getting closer to economic equality?
Oxfam says it has to do with the fact that we have no national child care program. Women spend an average of 50 hours (just over double what men spend) on child care and other unpaid household work.
That impacts how much time women can spend on paid work and whether or not they stand a chance at promotion, says Kate McInturff, senior researcher at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
It also has to do with fiscal policy. The Universal Child Care Benefit, which gives parents of children under five $100 a month, discourages married mothers, especially those who would take low-income jobs, from working because it’s tacked on to their taxable income. The result: “a vicious cycle in which women work fewer years, contribute less to their pensions and employment insurance, and have lower salaries they re-enter the workforce after their child-rearing years are over,” argues Oxfam’s report.
What’s more, critics say, the $100 cheques amount to only a fraction of the cost of child care and take up precious resources that could be used for universal daycare or other policies to close the gender gap. In Quebec, which opened $7-a-day daycares for young children in 1997, the rate of female employment has increased faster than the rest of Canada.
But child care is just one issue. Women face discrimination early on. Canadian women with MBAs typically start out in lower-level jobs and earn an average of $8,167 less than men with the same degrees right after they graduate. They also get fewer opportunities to move up the career ladder as fast as men.
“They don’t have children. It’s not a question of ‘leaning in.’ It’s not the confidence gap. It’s just the first day out of their business school degree,” McInturff says, adding that we’ve hit some “very difficult-to-move barriers,” including the attitudes of employers towards women.
The stagnation in women’s progress goes back to the recession of the early 1990s, when Canada began to reduce its spending on social and economic support programs that boost gender equality, and it’s continued since, says Kathleen Lahey, a Queen’s University professor who researches gender equality and the economy.
But Minister of Labour and Status of Women, Kellie Leitch, says that progress hasn’t come to a halt. Things aren’t so bad for Canadian women, she explains, although the government is spending more to get women into leadership roles.
Women have benefitted from the more than one million jobs that have been created in Canada since 2009, she says. She adds that the government is funding programs that encourage women to enter the skilled professional trades, as well as careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and that it recently launched an initiative to support female entrepreneurs.
The gap between the number of Canadian men and women who work has narrowed significantly but things could still improve, especially for aboriginal, immigrant, and disabled women, who are less likely work, says Jack Mintz, director of the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary.
“But part of the thing we have to remember is that the direction has been going in the right place and it does take time to deal with these issues,” Mintz explains. “When you start off at a certain point in time… you have an economy that operates in a certain way. People have already made long-term decisions about working and their lifestyles and things like that.”
But McInturff says she isn’t optimistic: “What we’ve seen are very high levels of women’s participation in higher education and employment over the last twenty years, so we should be seeing some increase in women’s participation in those senior management positions and in political representation…. We just aren’t seeing that yet.”
Critics say the government isn’t investing enough to counter this dynamic.
In the aftermath of the recent recession, the government has mostly invested in male-dominated sectors—such as construction, oil, gas and mining—rather than ones in which women tend to work, says Lauren Ravon, senior policy advisor on women’s rights at Oxfam.
Meanwhile, enough government funding hasn’t been used to counter “deeply-entrenched” patterns at the elementary, high school, and university level that discourage women from pursuing STEM careers, Lahey says.
At the end of the day, this isn’t just a women’s rights problem. Gender equality plays a key role in strong, sustainable, and balanced economic growth.
“Canada has one of the highest and most skilled and educated female work forces in the world and we’re not making nearly as much use of that expertise as we could as a country,” Lahey says. “It’s almost as if Canada has decided that it’s going to seek jobs, growth and prosperity with one hand tied behind its back.”