Women still not valued equally in the workforce

·6 min read

Denise MacLeod worked a lot of nights as a manager of a retail business. When someone else didn't show up for work, her plans had to be pushed aside and she had to fill in.

As a result, she missed her son’s soccer games and her daughter’s parent-teacher interviews. If one of her children was sick, she couldn’t count on being home with them.

MacLeod is now an office manager in Charlottetown, in a more flexible workplace, with the option to work from home. Her new workplace is more supportive, she said, and "mentally healthy”.

“It definitely makes things easier,” she said.

She’s even been able to go back to volunteering at her daughter’s school once a week at lunchtime.

“It’s less stress to feel comfortable to say, ‘I have a dentist appointment’ and not get glared at,” she said.

Storm days are easier, too. In retail, she’d lose pay during if the store closed or if she had to stay home with her children due to a school cancellation.

“A lot of employers don’t really understand the stress of having a storm day or having a doctor’s appointment," she says.

MacLeod's story is familiar to many women. The gender wage gap, higher representation in lower-paid jobs, lack of flexibility in workplace policies and discrimination are just a few of the global issues women encounter in the workplace, including here in Atlantic Canada.

Indigenous women, women of colour, women with disabilities and members of the LGBTQ+ community face even greater challenges as issues intersect.

Jillian Kilfoil, executive director of Women’s Network P.E.I., recently gathered the results of a self-assessment process for employers. The project aimed to help identify unintentional barriers for people entering the workforce and to help the participants become an employer of choice and offer more supportive workplaces.

“That will help all employees, but especially women-identified ones, especially moms,” said Kilfoil.

“Women continue to do more than two-thirds of the unpaid work globally, and that unpaid work is related to childcare, elder care and care for adults with disabilities."

As a result of that unpaid care work, women are less active in the formal workforce sometimes. When they are, she says, wages are very gendered.

"They are impacted by the gender wage gap," Kilfoil adds.

In 2021, women still don’t earn as much as men.

The gender pay gap contributes to women’s poverty, impacts their health and is a barrier for those trying to leave an abusive relationship, according to the Canadian Women’s Foundation.

Women accounted for half of the lowest income group but only 20 per cent of the highest income group, said a 2015 Statistics Canada study.

Canadian women working full-time make 75 cents for every dollar men make, and the gap is even wider for Indigenous women, women with disabilities, racialized women or newcomers, says Statistics Canada.

“Sexism still exists within our workplaces, and there are a lot of assumptions around gender that get made,” said Kilfoil. “Certainly, we know that although it’s illegal to pass up a woman with children for promotion, we know that informally, it does happen.”

Moms, in particular, seem to be seen as "riskier employees" compared to dads. Kilfoil said it goes back to the division of labour not being as even as it should be.

“Sometimes that’s true, and sometimes, it’s the perception," said Kilfoil.

"What that means is, they get passed over for advancement or don’t get hired for certain positions. We still see these gender norms exist — and we do see that they are changing, but they do still exist.

The pay gap is not because women are less qualified — the female workforce is more educated than ever.

Canadian women make up more than half the students at post-secondary schools and have surpassed men in educational attainment. Women are enrolled in diverse fields of study, which has increased their representation in higher-status occupations, according to a 2019 study by Melissa Moyser cited by Statistics Canada.

Women who graduate from university with a bachelor’s degree earn an average of $69,063 annually, while men who graduate with a bachelor’s degree earn $97,761, said the Canadian Women’s Foundation.

“Women often get streamed more into lower-paid, care-work type jobs,” said Kilfoil. “Men do seem to get streamed into higher-paying jobs, and we see wages reflect that sexism that exists.”

Industries that are more male-dominated tend to be higher-earning, and industries that are female-dominated include generally lower-paying jobs.

“They suffer from both the gender and the care penalty,” said Kilfoil. “Usually they’re engaged in care work — which is devalued — and they’re usually a women-workforce — which is more devalued — and as a result, the work may be more draining, may be more difficult but doesn’t have same wages as the other industries.”

This disparity is seen in 2017 research into women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, conducted by the Pew Research Centre, an American think tank.

Women make up about half of the workers in STEM fields, but they aren’t evenly spread throughout the 74 STEM jobs the research looked at.

Sales engineers and mechanical engineers are still 90 per cent male, while women make up 96 per cent of speech pathologists and 95 per cent of dental hygienists

Jobs that conform to traditional gender roles tend to be undervalued because they parallel domestic work that women were expected to perform for free, says the Canadian Women’s Foundation.

When specific industries employ a large percentage of women, wages drop, research suggests.

“Twenty years ago, graphic designers could charge $100 an hour, and most of them were male. As women entered the industry, it really devalued the way that graphic (design) was viewed, and now most charge around $20 an hour,” said Kilfoil.

“Researchers say that’s due to women’s participation in that job, specifically.”

While the consequences are far from equal, Kilfoil said gender barriers exist for men as well.

“It is a lot harder if a man wants to be a nurse or an early childhood educator. They don’t have role models they can look up to or pathways that they can find," she says.

About four in 10 women say they experienced gender discrimination at work, according to the 2017 PEW research. That number jumps to almost eight in 10 women in mostly male workplaces in STEM fields.

Discrimination can look like being denied a promotion, being passed over for the most important assignments, getting less support from senior leaders than a man in the same job or earning less than a man doing the same job.

“Although a lot of gains have been made, a lot of chronic barriers persist,” said Kilfoil.

“Until we re-calibrate a lot of that unpaid work more equally, and until we really work with employers and systems to ensure that gender bias — that unconscious bias — is eliminated from workplaces, women and many people who face marginalization will continue to be passed over for advancement or paid less or forced into more precarious work situations.”

Alison Jenkins, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Journal-Pioneer