Despite Justin Trudeau’s efforts to stress his country’s female-friendly credentials, a new report has identified a ‘substantial gender gap’ in its workplaces. Is Canada’s feminist image too good to be true?
anada’s prime minister is a self-proclaimed feminist. Two years ago, Justin Trudeau’s appointment of the country’s first gender-equal cabinet made headlines worldwide. Recently, his government has released what has been called the “first feminist foreign aid policy”.
But now Canada’s own record on gender equality has been called into question by a perhaps unlikely source. The McKinsey Global Institute, a research arm of the corporate consultancy giant, has declared that the country’s workplaces have a “substantial gender gap”.
In a 124-page report, it describes tackling enduring gender inequalities at work as “a considerable economic opportunity” for Canada, which it predicts could add upwards of $150bn to the country’s GDP by 2026. McKinsey’s Tiffany Vogel told CBC that gender equality is “not just a moral imperative [and] not just the right thing to do – it’s good business practice”.
Recent data from Canada’s national statistics agency shows that for every $1 a man makes, on average a woman makes $0.74 – in part because women are disproportionately represented in low-wage jobs, including in fast food and hotel work.
A study of Ontario retail workers – most of whom are women – found that men earn more across all job categories, and are more likely to be offered full-time jobs or employed as managers.
The gender issue pervades all levels of business: corporate boards are dominated by men, and 95% of CEOs are male. McKinsey surveyed 69 of Canada’s largest companies and found that fewer women were being promoted. Among these companies, women make up 45% of entry-level workers, 25% of vice-presidents and 15% of CEOs.
“The gender pay gap persists in all types of occupations, even when women are in higher-paying jobs,” said Trish Hennessy, a director at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) thinktank. Pay gaps are particularly pronounced for immigrants and indigenous women, she added.
Hennessy said one way to close these gaps is to “revalue the caring work that women do” – referring to unpaid work at home, caring for family members, and paid work including in early childhood education. “Unionisation helps, too,” she said. “The gender pay gap is lower in unionised jobs – unions can be a great equaliser.”
Last year, Canada also fell down in the World Economic Forum’s global gender equality rankings, to 35th place. In 1995, it was in first place.
Canada’s foreign minister Chrystia Freeland, right, in Berlin: Justin Trudeau’s government boasts the ‘first feminist foreign aid policy’. Photograph: Markus Schreiber/AP
Armine Yalnizyan, a Canadian economist and business commentator, said that while gender inequality at work is a national problem, “there are huge variations across the country”. For instance, she said the Saskatchewan province appears more equal than neighbouring Alberta, which has larger pay gaps.
These gaps are falling among young people, she said, “but they’re nowhere near closed. It’s people that don’t have more than high-school [education] that see the biggest wage gap between women and men.”
Yalnizyan said higher minimum wages “would affect way more women than men, and would begin to compress wages”. She also described increasing access to childcare and early childhood education as a “virtuous cycle”, enabling more women to work while also creating jobs.
The McKinsey report says tackling these gender inequalities could lead to “re-energising Canada’s economy and its businesses”. It says GDP growth has slowed to approximately 2% a year, and that “a significant part of the solution is for Canada to tap into the vast, unrealised potential of women”.
The revolution is unfinished
Gender inequality at work is not a uniquely Canadian problem. In the US, women make less than $0.80 for every $1 that men do. In the UK, the gender pay gap is around 18%.
Globally, estimates suggest that just 24% of senior management roles are filled by women. In more than 120 countries, a potential employer can legally ask about a woman’s children or marital status at a job interview – while in more than a dozen states, husbands can prevent their wives from accepting jobs.
It has become something of a zeitgeist argument to describe gender equality as “good for business”. Last year, a UBS report said it is in companies’ interests to promote women up their ranks, and that tackling gender inequality could add £10tn to the world economy.
The Economist has printed stories with headlines such as “Girl power – gender equality is good for economic growth”. Women executives have called for others to “lean in”, and there have been campaigns for more women in boardrooms and MBA programmes.
In Canada, McKinsey’s report argues, more women need to get into managerial roles, “high-productivity” sectors such as oil, mining and technology, or become entrepreneurs. Companies need to do more to promote women “through the corporate pipeline”.
National statistics say 82% of women aged 25-54 were working, or looking for work, in 2015 – compared to 21% in 1950, and 63% in 1983. Canadian women university graduates outnumber men with these degrees – yet women are overrepresented in lower-paid jobs and are more likely to work part-time, juggling unpaid child care and other responsibilities at home.
Hennessy said that Canadian women are more educated than ever, and are already “contributing to economic growth – but as long as the gender pay gap persists, the revolution remains unfinished”.
She added: “Pay matters, but so do working conditions. Many jobs that women work in are precarious: hours are part-time or casual, they don’t have benefits or pensions. That means the gender pay gap follows them all the way to retirement.”
Canada also has a broader economic inequality problem. In January, an Oxfam report found that two of the country’s billionaires are as wealthy as the poorest third of the population.
Lauren Ravon, policy director at Oxfam Canada, said the situation of low-income women has been a “blind spot” in discussions about gender inequality at work, which tend to focus on entrepreneurship, leadership, corporate boards and senior executives. The reality, she added, is that much “economic opportunity” for women is in the lowest-paid jobs.
“We need to have a society where we value the work that women have traditionally done: education, childcare, healthcare,” Ravon said. She expects “a huge increase in home-based care in the future”, as Canada’s population ages.
The Trudeau government recently announced it would perform gender-based analyses of its budgetary measures, in order to “deliver real and meaningful change for all Canadians”. It has also promised to bring in national pay equity legislation, though it has been criticised for delaying this until 2018.
At the CCPA thinktank, Hennessy said: “Why not take inspiration from Iceland, which has committed to a plan to completely close the gender pay gap in five years’ time? Set a goal. Set a timeline. Work the plan and make it happen.”