An Unequal Paying Field: Ontario’s gender wage gap, explained

Sasha Gronsdahl

Spending late nights researching a wicked public policy problem may not be everyone’s idea of fun, but that was how many students from U of T’s School of Public Policy and Governance chose to fill their time last week as participants in the School’s internal case competition. The “case” was about Ontario’s gender wage gap, and teams presented their policy solutions to a panel of judges last Friday. Many Powerpoint slides and cups of coffees later, here’s what we learned about the issue.

What is the gender wage gap?

The gender wage gap is the difference between what men earn and what women earn. The Ontario gender wage gap itself can be measured in many ways:

  • Comparing hourly wages for women and men, the gap is about 14 per cent (that is, on average, women earn 82 cents for every dollar a man earns).
  • Comparing average annual earnings of women and men who are working full-time and throughout the whole year, the gap is about 26 per cent.
  • Comparing average annual earnings but including contract and part-time workers (more of whom are women), the gap in Ontario is 29 per cent, according to 2013 data. This is right around the Canadian average of 30 per cent.

The gap also affects different groups of women differently: the gap widens when looking at racialized women or women with disabilities.

But the gap disappears if you compare apples to apples, right?

mind-the-gapSome might think that the wage gap can be “explained” by controlling for part-time work, lower levels of education, or types of work, and that if you look only at women and men doing the same job, the pay gap disappears. In fact, the gap exists even when men and women do the same work with comparable education and tenure – a recent report by Catalyst Canada showed women graduates from MBA programs earn an average of $8,167 less than their male counterparts in their first jobs out of school.

Plus, just because parts of the wage gap can be explained by other variables doesn’t mean those issues don’t need attention. For example, many women may work part time because of a lack of affordable child care options and an expectation that women will bear the cost of domestic duties. Another example is the “segregation” of women and men into different fields with different levels of pay: low-paying jobs like child care worker or personal support worker are often predominantly female, and high-paying jobs like CEO or software engineer are often predominantly male. This points to an undervaluation of traditionally female work that results in low pay, and barriers for women to enter high-paying fields. (For more on myths about the gender wage gap, see the Equal Pay Coalition’s website.)

Why is there a gender wage gap?

Part of what makes the gender wage gap such a difficult policy issue to address is the sheer number of reasons the problem exists. A background paper prepared by the Ontario government’s Gender Wage Gap Strategy Steering Committee notes several broad factors: discrimination against women, bias in workplace hiring and pay negotiation practices, segregation of men and women into different fields with different pay levels, barriers to women advancing in their field (the “glass ceiling” effect), women taking the burden of caregiving and family responsibilities, and educational barriers to women entering fields historically dominated by men.

So, what are the solutions?

As any student of public policy knows, the way you define the problem will shape the types of solutions you will pursue. Just as the reasons for the problem’s existence are numerous, so are the potential policy solutions. Proposals for action, both from the literature and from the bright minds involved in last week’s case competition at SPPG, include:

  • Improving access to affordable child care spaces
  • Adjusting family leave policies, both to allow flexibility for women and to encourage men to share the responsibility of care for infants
  • Encouraging or requiring better wage transparency (for example, the provincial government has said they will publish salary data for the OPS by gender)
  • Strengthening laws like the Pay Equity Act and the Employment Standards Act to ensure that employers are complying with equal pay rules and not discriminating on the basis of gender
  • Increasing the number of women on company boards
  • Implementing awareness/anti-bias training programs for employers, workplaces, and the public
  • Encouraging women to enter male-dominated fields like trades or STEM
The winning team of the case competition recommended reform of family leave policies. The all-male team was conscious of the lack of female voices in their group. “As soon as [the assignment] was distributed we started talking about how to ensure our policy options were empathetic towards something we had no first-hand knowledge of,” said Jonathan Kates, second from left. “We also want to see change since the gender gap affects our mothers, sisters, partners, and friends.”

What’s the government doing about it?

The Government of Ontario appointed a Gender Wage Gap Strategy Steering Committee in April 2015, which released its final report with recommendations in summer 2016. In her September 2016 mandate letters to the Minister of Labour, Kevin Flynn, and the Minister of Women’s Issues, Tracy MacCharles, Premier Wynne asked for a gender wage gap strategy to be introduced by 2018.

It’s time for an equal paying field

For a society that considers itself progressive on issues of gender, we still have work to do in valuing women’s and men’s work equally. And that work needs to be done, now—because increasing women’s labour force participation brings economic benefits, because laws like the Charter of Rights and Freedoms require it, but also, as our prime minister might put it, because it’s 2016.

Sasha is a public policy graduate student at the University of Toronto. She grew up in sunny Kelowna, BC, and received a bachelor’s degree in political science and professional writing from the University of Victoria. While at UVic, she began volunteering in refugee resettlement, which led her to develop a keen interest in issues of diversity, inclusion, and social justice generally. Most recently, she has worked for a community foundation in Victoria, and, when not in front of a computer, she enjoys meandering through cool neighbourhoods, singing and playing guitar (not well!), and exploring the great outdoors.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. CS Cart says:

    Thank you for your business lessons, you helped me a lot.

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