In March 2017, Iceland made headlines as the first country in the world to require businesses to demonstrate they are paying men and women equally. Then in July 2017, the BBC made headlines when published data revealed a large gap between male presenters’ salaries and female presenters’ salaries—and then again when the presenters demanded that the BBC address the disparity. In fact, the issue of the gender wage gap makes headlines regularly, yet most of us don’t really understand what it is or what it represents.
One of the most frustrating aspects to the gender wage gap is that, on paper, it shouldn’t exist. In Canada, it is illegal to discriminate in hiring on the basis of gender, marital status, age or other aspects of human difference; in law, women and men are equals in the workplace. Yet a demonstrable gap between men’s earnings and women’s persists.
At its most basic, the gender wage gap refers to the difference between what women are paid and what men are paid, based on average wages over time. That seems straightforward, right? But one reason the gender wage gap is so contested has to do with the way it is calculated.
If we compare the average hourly wage of women working full time to that of men working full time, in 2014 women made $0.88 for every dollar men made. That figure, however, doesn’t reflect the complexity of women’s working lives. For instance, if we compare men’s full-time, full-year income to women’s full-time, full-year income, in 2014 women earned $0.74 for every dollar men earned. The larger gap reflects a specific factor about women’s participation in the workplace: that the average woman works fewer paid hours annually than the average man does. That’s because working women’s available time is limited by unpaid family responsibilities.
Full-time wage figures may be misleading, however, because a significant number of women work part time even though many of them would prefer to work full time (women are the majority of part-time employees as well as the majority of minimum-wage workers). The Canadian Women’s Foundation (CWF), a charitable organization dedicated to women’s social equality and participation, calculated that when part-time earnings are added to the mix, women fall back sharply: to $0.67 for every dollar men earned in 2011. And even this figure may leave our understanding incomplete because it doesn’t reflect when those hours are being worked—what time of day or day of the week—and whether the employer offers workers an incentive to work long or unusual hours. And since we’re talking in averages, it’s important to remember that every woman experiences the pay gap differently. The CWF notes that “Women who are racialized, Indigenous, living with a disability or newcomers to Canada earn even less.” By comparison, current U.S. statistics show that the average American woman makes $0.80 for every dollar a man makes, but this figure changes from state to state and drops noticeably for women of colour.
Pay disparity between men and women is so commonplace in our social world that it can feel natural. Male actors earn more on television and in movies than their female co-stars do. Male athletes earn much bigger salaries—and sign more valuable endorsement deals—than female athletes do. Even the average male writer earns 45 percent more than the average female writer does. No matter how we compare men’s and women’s wages, a gap exists, but its existence is not natural or accidental. The CWF estimates that, despite legislation, “10–15% of the wage gap is attributed to gender-based wage discrimination.” The root of this discrimination rests in social attitudes and beliefs.
If you have a conversation with friends about why women make less than men do, you may hear comments like “Women choose poorer-paying jobs” and “Women aren’t good at bargaining for the best salary.” Such comments underscore a larger social conversation about the roles and rewards that are appropriate for women and men. Because this discourse is so common and is reinforced so consistently and subtly in our conversations, our media and even our personal relationships, it can lead us to take for granted illogical ideas that don’t stand up to scrutiny. We might call these ideas myths.
Research finds three consistent points about the gender wage gap:
These findings tell us the gender wage gap is real. Most people who work or have worked outside the home have opinions—sometimes very strong opinions—about what’s real and what’s myth. Let’s take a look at how myths and facts interact for working women.
One of our society’s most resilient myths is that working men must be paid more than women are because men are the major earners in their families and have the primary careers in the home. There’s a certain circularity to this notion—the significance of the job justifies the compensation, and the compensation justifies the significance—and it goes hand in hand with the myth that women’s jobs are less important, that women work for supplemental money or to get out of the house.
The idea that women are less serious about work produces many negative outcomes for working women. Because some supervisors believe it, many women find themselves stuck in part-time work when they want full-time work, or stuck in low-level positions when their aspirations and abilities are greater. The issue may be compounded when women take maternity leave. Dr. Fiona Angus, a professor of Sociology at MacEwan University in Edmonton, says,
“This is known as the ‘mommy track.’ When women return to work, they often experience being passed over for promotions or have their hours cut back. Many women end up quitting their jobs out of frustration.”
Though understandable, quitting may reinforce beliefs about women’s commitment and may leave a woman dependent on her partner’s income, thereby reinforcing the idea that men need to earn a “family wage.”
Over decades, women workers have tended to cluster in what researcher Melissa Moyser calls “the 5 Cs”: caring, clerical, catering, cashiering and cleaning. Many jobs in these fields are low-paying and insecure. Women’s concentration in these jobs has given rise to another myth: that women choose to work in lower-paid jobs.
Let’s be realistic. No one willingly chooses to earn less than other people do. When people make such “choices,” they generally do so because their situation is constrained. For instance, many women face a choice between working for a lower wage and not working at all. Not much of a choice if your household depends on your wage, is it? Fiona Angus remarks,
“The issue of choice is complex. It is almost impossible for a family to manage without two incomes. Therefore, women are more likely to put up with discriminatory treatment in the workplace because of economic need.”
Statistics show that men’s wages are higher than women’s within every professional category, even if that category is dominated by women workers. This finding is commonly explained by the notion that men are better negotiators than women are, or that women are socialized to accept what they’re offered. Complicating matters further, female-dominated fields may be career-limiting for workers.
Some of these jobs offer few steps for advancement and few opportunities for transition to other, related fields. Retraining is generally needed for the worker to move into a role with greater responsibility and better pay. Time lost to retraining puts women further behind in experience and earnings.
Several studies have found that when women enter a profession in significant numbers, that profession loses status and becomes less well paid. Men who continue to work in the field tend to concentrate in the higher-paid, higher-status ranks. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a body that oversees international trade and economic progress, offers the example of doctors: today there are many female general practitioners, but most medical specialists—surgeons and neurologists, for example—are male. So maybe the issue isn’t women’s choices as much as the market’s reaction to those choices.
That women can educate themselves out of the wage gap is another common myth. This invokes the human capital argument. Human capital refers to how people invest in themselves to become economically valuable—their knowledge, skills, personal qualities and social networks. Postsecondary education is one of the most important ways women invest in themselves; more women currently participate in postsecondary education than men do, and when men and women first graduate, their wages are similar. Over time, however, men receive more opportunities to excel and are promoted more rapidly regardless of their education.
American economist Claudia Goldin has argued that men’s willingness to work unconventional hours, versus the need of many women—particularly those raising families—for more conventionally structured hours (to accommodate childcare, school hours, out-of-school activities and other family commitments), enables men to leap ahead of women rapidly. Goldin and her colleagues found that the gap is more significant for workers with university degrees than for those without and is much more significant for married women than for single women.
Women’s investment in their human capital is sometimes used against them. Economics scholars Jill Rubery and Damian Grimshaw refer to “human capital decay,” employers’ perception that education or training grows stale if it’s not used sufficiently through employment. Rubery and Grimshaw’s findings suggest that only full-time employment prevents the “decay” of a worker’s credentials. Women tend to have more interrupted work histories—due to maternity leave, personal leave to care for family members, part-time employment and prolonged under-employment—and thus are more likely to experience “decay” in their credentials, making advancing in a field more difficult or requiring them to pursue further training or education to protect their human capital investment. This experience is part of a larger issue called the part-time penalty.
Trying to balance work and family commitments is challenging for many women because the burden of unpaid work—meal preparation, housework, childcare and so on—still falls disproportionately on women. For this reason, part-time, contract and temporary work may be attractive despite drawbacks like lower hourly wages, high risk of job loss and few or no benefits. But because of the fields in which women tend to work—the health sector, retail sales, the public sector and other service jobs—women are also disproportionately vulnerable to cutbacks and layoffs.
Managing the balance means that some women turn down promotions because a new position can interfere with family responsibilities. For similar reasons, many women turn down overtime hours because they simply can’t afford the intangible costs. Many men never face these kinds of decisions. But the unequal distribution of unpaid labour restricts women’s incomes and career advancement.
There is a clear relationship between women’s unpaid work at home and their undervaluing in the workplace. Researchers argue that one of the reasons women’s work outside the home is undervalued is that so many women work in fields similar to or related to the unpaid work women do at home: cooking, cleaning and caring for others. When a child is sick or a family member must be taken to a medical appointment, it is far more likely the female head of the family who stays with the child or accompanies the relative. Statistics Canada data reveals that women lose more work days annually than men do (2.1 versus 1.3 respectively) to caring for others.
The mommy track and the part-time penalty interact with a factor dubbed presenteeism, which refers to being generally visible in the workplace. It is demonstrated when workers show up early and work late, work unpleasant hours (e.g., late nights, weekends) and take little or no time off due to illness (their own or a family member’s). It may also involve spending time where higher-ups are and being seen at work-related events such as after-work drinks, sports tournaments and industry mixers. Presenteeism can keep women with children from advancing because of their family commitments, which may require them to leave work at a fixed time every day, to say no to overtime and not to participate in external networking. When supervisors perceive women’s absence, they may be reluctant to assign them to either long-term projects or short-term, high-intensity projects; again, supervisors may feel women are insufficiently committed, regardless of a woman’s actual commitment, knowledge or abilities.
Many women know they are being treated unfairly but are afraid to speak up. They’ve been told this is the way business works. Employers cut the corners they can. If women are willing to work for less than men accept, then the market will take advantage. Responding to this implied threat with silence and conformity allows bias and discrimination to continue unchecked.
The interaction of our myths and the facts has real consequences for working women. One of the biggest consequences is the threat of poverty. The less a woman earns, and the fewer hours a woman works for pay, the greater her risk of living near or in poverty. Poverty may be less of an issue for dual-earner households, but for single women and single mothers, it’s an everyday threat.
Poverty is also a risk for women as they age. When women make less than men do, they must work much longer—a decade or more—before they can afford to retire comfortably (neither in luxury nor in need). They must also save a greater portion of their income for retirement: one expert calculated that, due to women’s discontinuous work histories, women need to invest 18 percent of their earnings for retirement. Separation, divorce or the untimely death of a spouse can lead to hardship.
Fear of poverty constrains women’s independence and their choices—in the workplace and at home—in ways that men do not experience and may not even perceive. The consequences of the wage gap reach far beyond individual women and affect our communities, our cities, even our national well-being.
We’re not helpless in this situation. In fact, there’s plenty we can do, both as individuals and as communities.
First, we can work toward making workplaces sustainable. We need to expand workplace benefits for women and men, including flexible hours within a secure employment framework, the option of working from home and affordable, accessible childcare. Fiona Angus says,
“Employers need to have family-friendly workplace policies, ones that recognize that all employees have domestic responsibilities and should not be punished for them. On-site daycares are invaluable, as is recognition of both maternity and paternity leave.”
Women can work together to make change. Social attitudes around the gender wage gap tend to make individual women feel uniquely responsible for their decisions, but individual choices are made in the context of powerful social forces. It helps to understand that women share this problem with others, regardless of their age, level of education or marital status. Conversation is important: we need to overcome our reluctance to talk about our wages, ask questions and share information so women aren’t pitted against one another to make bad decisions. We also need courage, and encouragement, to push back when we’re being exploited.
Our workplace pioneers can be role models and mentors to the women coming up behind them. This is particularly important for women in well-paid positions such as STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) professionals and tenured academics. Women also need workplace opportunities to shape policy and to lead; unionized environments are notably strong in this respect. Women’s groups also offer outstanding opportunities and support for women to develop leadership and network building.
Finally, we can push for social change in our homes, schools and communities. We must encourage boys and men to participate equally in the unpaid work of living, and work to dismantle myths of masculinity that restrict people to gender-stereotyped roles. Fiona Angus affirms, “Nothing will change until there is widespread cultural knowledge that all human beings are capable of a wide variety of skills and knowledge. We need to disrupt the belief that what men do is more important, and deserving of higher pay, than what women do.”
The problem is not women. The problem is not men. The problem is a system that rewards people unequally for their work—that in some cases rewards a woman for depending on a male partner rather than asserting her own independence and agency. Changing our policies, actions and workplaces to be sustainable and fair will make work better for women, men and society overall. t8n