Gender wage gap still ‘huge’ despite pay equity laws

Pink and blue figures on unequal coin stacks. Stock photo by Getty Images

Despite recent gains and after more than a quarter century with pay equity legislation, female employees in Canada still make a third less than their male counterparts.

Average annual earnings for women were just $32,100 compared to $48,100 for men, according to a 2012 report by Statistics Canada.

“That’s a pretty huge gap,” insists lawyer and pay equity specialist Mary Cornish.

All provinces and territories now have pay equity laws, many in place since the 1980s. Yet large discrepancies remain.

Recently, McMaster University moved to redress a pay gap by giving its female faculty members an across-the-board raise, after an internal study revealed women earned on average $3,515 less than men.

The school was given kudos for its proactive measures, but Cornish says it didn’t go far enough.

“It left out a lot of people,” she says, adding it didn’t address part-time staff, or contract workers. “If you actually looked at the pay gap overall of the entire group it would be way higher. They’re addressing quite a small part of it actually.”

The move affects about a third of McMaster’s 1,000 full-time academic staff.

The pay bump, which is not retroactive, also comes on the heels of a 2014 report by faculty member Charlotte Yates that identified non-salary issues impeding women’s advancement at the Hamilton, Ont. university. Her report highlighted how female staff are not accommodated appropriately, mostly in terms of parental leave, given they have more child care responsibilities than their male colleagues.

This affected their ability to get their PhD — a prerequisite for tenure — and earn a higher salary. Yates also recommended updating the university’s sexual harassment policy and ensuring equitable hiring practices.

McMaster is not a pioneer here. The University of British Columbia gave a two-per-cent bump to female staff in 2013, making the raises retroactive to 2010. York University in Toronto has also redressed pay gaps.

“Increasingly people are trying to take a broader view of closing the gap,” says Cornish. “[McMaster] is doing a small part of it, which is really looking more at the equal-pay-for-equal-work situation.”

Gender-based wage discrimination is prohibited by human rights legislation in B.C., Alberta, Ontario, and Saskatchewan. Additionally, pay equity — also referred to as equal pay for equal work — is a requirement of employment standards legislation in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, N.L., Yukon, and the Northwest Territories.

Some provinces — Manitoba, N.S., N.B., and P.E.I — have their own separate pay equity laws for public sector workers.

Federally, all government workers are protected under the Public Sector Equitable Compensation Act. The legislation was passed in 2009, but many portions of it have yet to come into effect.

All Canadian workers are covered by s. 11 of the Canadian Human Rights Act that states:

“It is a discriminatory practice for an employer to establish or maintain differences in wages between male and female employees employed in the same establishment who are performing work of equal value.”

Cornish says a lot of pay equity legislation is outdated and needs better child-care provisions, as well as measures that decrease the “vulnerability” of a lot of work so women can move into situations where they can have more full-time work and equal earnings.

She adds that widespread job restructuring due to privatization of services has made women’s work more “precarious,” as people have been forced to work more part-time and contract jobs that don’t offer the same level of benefits or legal protections.

“It’s less likely to be covered by the employment act, because there’s more people who are independent contractors,” she says. “So there’s a lot of complexities to the structures of women’s work and protecting it now than there were before.”

In Ontario, where she practices law, Cornish says pay-equity ratios made significant progress after the Pay Equity Act came into effect in 1990, but those early gains are in jeopardy.

“Since then the progress has kind of rapidly deteriorated.”

Last year, Cornish authored a report titled A Growing Concern: Ontario’s Gender Pay Gap that detailed how the average annual salary for a woman in the province decreased by $1,400 to $33,600 in 2011, from $35,000 in 2010. During the same period, male salaries increased by $200.

“So even if you take nursing, men earn more than women in nursing. It’s hard to explain all of that on anything but discrimination,” insists Cornish. “It’s pretty stunning when it goes by all sectors and industries.”

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