Few would argue that the wage gap between the genders is not a significant issue — but, as it turns out, the region a person lives in has a lot to do with just how wide that gap is.
That was the central finding of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) report The Best and Worst Places to be a Woman in Canada in 2015.
The study ranked the nation’s 25 largest metropolitan areas based on how men and women compare in five areas: economic security, leadership, health, personal security and education.
The findings indicate that a region’s dominant industries and provincial policies play a large role in the gender gap. For instance, cities in Quebec tended to rank higher because of provincial policies aimed at improving work-life balance for women. Montreal, Quebec City and Gatineau all ranked within the top 10.
On the flip side, regions primarily focused on male-dominated industries, such as Calgary, Edmonton and Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., ranked in the bottom three.
But the study is not about calling out which cities are the winners and which aren’t, said Kate McInturff, the study’s author and senior researcher at the CCPA in Ottawa. Rather, it is meant to be a testament to the fact these gender gaps are real, measurable and need to be addressed, she said.
“There are real benefits to addressing this. I understand that some of the ways in which you close the pay gap is by tracking the pay gap and… increased transparency around pay,” she said.
“And I appreciate that the first suggestion involves spending more money on salaries — and the second is not something that private enterprises are always super excited about. But the upside, I think, can be seen in, for example, McMaster (University)’s announcement that they’re going to close the pay gap for their female faculty.
“You have incredible employee loyalty and you also become an employer of choice for really well-qualified women.”
Women are outnumbering men amongst university graduates and going into a wider variety of occupations, said McInturff.
“They’re very well-trained, they’re very well-educated and if you’re an employer that can show that you’re actually paying attention to the pay gap and valuing their work equally, I think you’re going to see great employee retention but you’re also going to attract some great employees.”
Yet the data has shown for a long time now there continue to be massive disparities between women and men’s compensation, said Ritu Bhasin, principal and founder of people strategies firm Bhasin Consulting in Toronto.
“When we have more women advancing up the leadership ranks in certain sectors, the expectation would be that there would not be income disparities. I don’t think that’s always true, especially in industries where for women, the barriers to entry are greater.”
Addressing industry differences
It may be tempting to simply blame the fact that certain regions — and their dominant industries — simply attract more male employees, said McInturff. But that’s an oversimplification.
“It’s not the industries themselves — what happens is in some regions, you have those male-dominated industries but you don’t have equally healthy female-dominated industries,” she said.
“If you invest a lot in job growth — and Alberta’s the obvious example — in oil and gas and construction… and roughly 85 per cent of those employees are men, and you don’t also invest say in education, in social services, in health care where the majority of employees are women, then you get that disconnect. You get the majority of women being underemployed, you get women seeking out jobs where they can find them in lower-paying fields such as the service industry, the hospitality industry, and so that also exacerbates the difference in wages.”
Male- and female-dominated industries have always been a trend, said McInturff — but it’s when investment in one sector vastly outpaces investment in the others that these wage imbalances tend to occur.
“I’ve been accused of being somehow critical of male-dominated industries — that’s not the case at all. My point is simply that for an economy to be well-balanced and for families to be resilient (because most families have both men and women in them), you need to invest in both industries where men tend to work and the industries where women tend to work,” she said.
“That has a great inflating effect on your economy because if you have, for example, a downturn in your oil prices and you have created a lot of jobs in education and health care, you still have a lot of people who are employed and making a decent wage.”
That’s going to be a real asset to the economy and to families, said McInturff.
“The vast majority of families now rely on two incomes and we need to plan our economic policies around that.”
Systemic problem, individual solutions?
Even so, the problem is not limited to certain regions, said Bhasin.
“We all lose as a society when we have these disparities… because when women are not being equally rewarded for the work they’re doing, it has an impact on families as well and families’ resources, which then has an impact on children and their education, and their accessibility to quality of life, so it’s a societal, systemic failure,” she said.
But employers can still search for solutions on an individual level, said Vandana Juneja, regional director for central Canada at Catalyst Canada in Toronto.
And that starts by considering how they are providing access to career advancement options for both men and women, such as sponsorship programs, she said.
“Not only do you want your employees to have a mentor, you also want them to have access to a sponsor.”
Traditionally, a mentor is someone who has conversations with you and provides career guidance, said Juneja.
“A sponsor is someone who is at a more senior level in the organization and may have more ability to provide impact and influence. And they are not necessarily sitting at the table talking to you — they are out there talking about you and advocating on your behalf for that next opportunity.”
And the CCPA report, in and of itself, is also a platform for this discussion to happen, said McInturff.
“I would love to see more support at the national level to bring more people together who are working on these issues on the front lines,” she said.
“We really have a lot to learn from each other, and I would never want anyone to look at the (city) rankings and think, ‘This is terrible, there’s nothing we can do about it.’”
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