Pay Equity: Addressing the Gender Wage Gap

Pay Equity | man and woman working at a table

Pay Equity and The Gender Wage GapAuthor: Bram Lecker

Pay Equity and The Gender Wage Gap

April 10, 2018 is Equal Pay Day in Ontario. It symbolizes the extra days women have to work into the new year to earn what men made the previous year. This date differs each year and by jurisdiction. Not surprisingly, the gender wage gap is a chronic problem across the globe. In Canada, statisticians have studied the problem from many angles and it ranges from 25% – 30% in favour of men. Pay equity disparity exists in both our public and private sectors.

Of late, the matter has taken center stage. High profile female co-star Robin Wright, of the Netflix hit series House of Cards, demanded the same pay as her male counterpart. Soon after, Clair Foy of The Crown, became the subject of a media storm about her pay. She plays the lead character, the Queen of England. And the press discovered she earned less than her male co-star with a lower profile role. Shamed, the producers promptly fixed this, declaring, “Going forward, no one gets paid more than the Queen.”  Under the shadow of the the #metoo movement, this is now a tangible political issue, open for discourse and solutions in Canada.

Gender Wage Gap: The Role of Government

Women earning less over the course of their careers spells poverty in their retirement. And therein lays the massive problem for governments. An unprecedented number of baby boomers are entering retirement. With women genetically outliving men, this trend has the potential to affect major economies. Pay equity and the gender wage gap are problems all progressive governments are trying to grab by the horns. In Canada, both our Federal and Provincial Ontario governments have introduced legislation to narrow the gaps between women’s and men’s earnings.

Gender Roles and Career Choices

The reasons for this wage gap are complex. Women remain primary caregivers in a majority of Canadian households. They bear and nurture children and require time off from work when the kids are sick. A clear shortage of long term care services in our health care system causes women to step into caregiver roles for elderly and ill family members. Our schools, hospitals and nursing homes have a disproportionately high number of female employees. These environments expose workers to germs, viruses and illnesses, more so than other professions.

For all these inadvertent reasons, it appears that collectively, women in the workforce require more accommodations at work simply to manage everyday life. It is no surprise that many choose jobs that are less demanding and which do not involve travel or long hours. Some sacrifice promotions. And women, more often than men, have little choice but to work part-time. All these reasons, and many more, including outright discrimination, form the genesis for the gender wage gap.

In Canada, all levels of government have tried to address this with legislation and progressive employment laws.

Pregnancy & Parenthood

The notion of giving up your job because you are pregnant is ancient history. Decades of innovative employment and human rights laws allow pregnant women to productively participate in the workplace. Pregnancy related complications are recognized as valid grounds for disability leave and workplace accommodation. They are complimented by fierce provincial legislation that protect women’s jobs, both during their pregnancy and when they return from parental leave.

Canada’s Federal pregnancy and parental leave benefits are among the best in the world. In January 2018, Ontario introduced Bill 148, the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, 2017. It sweetened existing parental leave provisions with more time off for both parents. Such parental leave incentives for fathers and same sex partners has allowed women to successfully return to their careers after having children. All of this has helped to narrow the gender wage gap.

Protected Sick leave

As noted above, sick leave is an important accommodation many women require to take care of themselves and their family members. And once again, both our federal and provincial Ontario governments step up to the plate to provide it.

Ontario employees legislated under the Employment Standards Act enjoy several types of sick leaves. They allow all employees to take time off when they are ill. And under certain circumstances, they can take extended time off to look after ill and dying relatives. These leaves are protected, meaning employers cannot harass, fire or discriminate against employees when they access the benefits.

Unionized workers have enjoyed superior benefits and sick leave provisions through their collective bargaining process for much longer than other Ontario employees. All of this goes a long way to provide women with the space to remain caregivers while holding down jobs and wage continuity.

Part Time Workers

Women hold more part-time jobs than men. Employment laws, until recently, addressed the rights of part time workers rather loosely. It allowed employers to treat their part-time employees less than favourably. Well, some of this changed a few days ago.

Bill 148 gave Ontario employees enhanced protection of their employment rights. An important part of this legislation came into effect on April 1, 2017. It addresses “Equal pay for Equal Work“, where part-time, temp and seasonal workers must receive the same rate as their full-time counterparts.

Pay Equity: Stuck in Second Gear

Since the 1960’s more women have entered the workforce. Many have successfully taken on the same demanding, well paid jobs as men. Over 30 years ago, Ontario passed the Pay Equity Act. Despite it, and all the other legislation described above, the gender wage gap remains stubbornly persistent, stuck at 30% for the last decade. The continuous stream of complaints at the Pay Equity Commission along with Ontario’s Sunshine List is a testament to this fact.

The Pay Transparency Act

Last month, coinciding with International Women’s Day, Ontario proposed an assertive piece of legislation. If passed, the Pay Transparency Act could take a bite out of the gender wage gap.  It would apply first to public sector employers, followed by large private sector employers.

The Act would prohibit employers from asking candidates about their previous wages. This would eliminate the systemic barrier of employers offering women token raises over historically suppressed wages. Public job postings would require salary or wage range disclosure. And large employers would need to track and report wage gaps based on gender and diversity.

It appears that, after decades of waiting for employers to voluntarily improve working standards for women, our provincial government is taking the gloves off.

Bram Lecker is Principal of Lecker & Associates, employment and disability benefits lawyers who exclusively represent employees of Ontario.

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