Mar 8, 2010

Women in the Canadian Economy


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.

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