Jasmine CY Lam
The gender wage gap is a persistent challenge to achieving prosperity in society. Although women are becomingly increasingly more educated than men, and there is even a Pay Equity Act in place, progress to close the gender wage gap has in fact slowed. Beyond Canada, countries that have the smallest pay gap, such as Denmark, have also found that the pay gap has remained stubbornly stuck.
To find out why the wage gap has persisted and to explore solutions to tackle the issue, the “Gender, Equity and Prosperity – A Discussion on Equal Pay” event invited panelists from wide-ranging backgrounds to discuss the topic. This included Victoria Budson, Executive Director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, Emanuela Heyninck, Ontario Pay Equity Commissioner, and Jamison Steeve, Executive Director of the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity and the Martin Prosperity Institute at University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. The event was moderated by Sarah Kaplan, Professor of Strategic Management and Distinguished Professor of Gender & the Economy at the University of Toronto.
A Multi-Faceted Gender Wage Gap
Moderator Sarah Kaplan begins the conversation by recognizing the complexities of the gender wage gap. The term “gender wage gap” is itself a simplification, as it masks the various ways women participate in the economy and the existence of multiple gender wage gaps. Today, pay disparity increasingly intersects with the multiple identities a woman holds. For instance, visible minority women are disproportionately represented in gendered sectors, such as care work, and face even larger pay gaps that are incommensurate with their skills, experiences and the value their work contributes to society.
It is also critical to distinguish between choice and circumstance. Some argue that it is a woman’s choice to work in lower-paid or part-time jobs. However, this hides the societal structures that shape the decision. Victoria Budson notes that women are often faced with a double bind, where they have responsibilities both in the workplace and at home, which drives their preferences and decisions at workplaces. As a result, many women value job flexibility as much as compensation and accept jobs that pay less in order to be better able to fulfill their duties at home. To say that women choose to be in lower-paid jobs is misleading and counter-productive, as the definition of choice means that the agent has a “free and unencumbered ability to select.”
Moving from Issue to Policy
Each panelist describes various policies that the government could adopt to help close the gender wage gap, from voluntary corporate practices, to regulations and the use of gender analytic tools, to stronger childcare policies.
The 100% Talent Compact
Using a success story from Boston, Budson explores the use of nudges to get organizations to correct bias in workplace practices. To close the gender wage gap, Mayor Martin Walsh in Boston enacted the Women’s Workforce Council’s 100% Talent Compact initiative. The initiative engages more than 100 businesses in the Boston area to voluntarily pledge to implement concrete, measurable steps that remove barriers for women. As Budson explains, at the core of the initiative is the recognition that when women are not valued adequately in the workplace and face barriers such as the motherhood penalty, companies themselves lose return on their investments as they are not able to manage their talent effectively. It is a lose-lose situation for both women and companies. Practices to address these barriers include promoting staff in bundles, rather than individually, and changing the portraits or photos of who is displayed on company walls to transform how staff perceive an organization.
Ontario Gender Wage Gap Strategy
While Heyninck agrees that partnerships need to be developed with businesses to tackle the wage gap, she finds that nudges may not be enough; rather, regulations may need to be put in place. Exploring recommendations from the Final Report and Recommendations of the Gender Wage Gap Strategy Steering Committee, she finds that the use of gender analytic tools that help identify unintentional gender biases may work best. Gender analytics tools require that gender-specific data and statistics are collected in workplaces to find out where in the workplace cycle that bias is happening. By pinpointing where and when bias is occurring, businesses can work with government to remove that barrier.
Childcare Policy as the #1 Economic Policy
For Jamison Steeve, stronger childcare policy not only helps to remove the gender wage gap, but would also serve as the best economic policy that a government can pursue. Currently, the cost of childcare consumes 22% of a household income with two working parents, and 32% for that of a single parent. Coupled with the gender wage gap, it can become uneconomical for some women to continue working. A stronger childcare policy means more availability of childcare spaces, and more subsidies to further reduce the cost for lower income households. Furthermore, Heyninck emphasizes the need to ensure caregivers providing childcare receive a salary commensurate with their skills and education. For Steeve, stronger child care policy is the number one economic policy that government should pursue as it enhances education, increases inter-generational mobility, and reduces poverty.
Opportunities for Public Policy
At all levels of government, there are many opportunities that can be seized to close the gender wage gap, but current action is not enough. The recently announced federal budget will extend employment insurance benefits for parental leave from 12 months to 18 months. However, as Steeve notes, because the amount paid out remains the same, this policy is ineffective for low and middle-class parents who could not afford to live on a reduced income for an even longer period of time. For him, the federal government does not do enough to encourage men to take paternity leaves, which ends up harming women as the longer they take off work, the larger their wage gap becomes. Heyninck agrees that the federal government needs to consider a take-it-or-leave-it paternity leave policy, which has had great success in encouraging more fathers to take paternity leave in other jurisdictions such as Europe and Quebec.
During the conversation, almost all members of the audience were nodding their heads in agreement, acknowledging the complexities and the challenges of a persistent gender wage gap. Sometimes a sigh could be heard in the crowd, as if people were signalling their fatigue at having to discuss the same old issue. The federal government’s recent announcement to implement name-blind hiring for public service is a promising start, but there is a need to have more policies in place to reduce the gender wage gap in order to create changes across Canada. The panel highlighted major policies that are well-researched and implementable—it’s now up to the government to put them in place.
Jasmine CY Lam holds a Bachelor of Arts Honours in Political Science and International Development from McGill University. She has over four years of professional experience in the non-profit sector, with a passion to develop and implement effective policies and solutions that tackle social and equity challenges in Toronto and in Canada.