Gains towards women’s equality receding

In last week’s issue of The Cord, editor-in-chief Alanna Wallace described some
aspects of the continuing struggle for women’s equality in Canada and abroad.

Issues of equality should concern everyone, young and old. This is particularly true for us in a university setting, where we ideally learn about and debate historical and present realities of inequality in gender relations and of attempts to sustain women’s rights to achieve gender equality.

Certainly, key elements of popular culture in Canada and the U.S. remain committed to depicting girls and women in stereotypical ways, which militates against girls and women enjoying equal rights and privileges of boys and men.

For instance, a renewed “reality” television show Sister Wives depicts a Utah man and his four contented wives, while conveying the impression that polygamy is a desirable option for women. Overall, society relentlessly promotes the ideology of men ruling the roost at home, work and play.

How does equality for women fare in Canada? Prior to the current federal government, federal programmes over several decades helped to support the drive for women’s equality, not without considerable political struggle, of course, and with much room for improvement. Thus by 2005 the World Economic Forum (WEF) ranked Canada 14th globally on gender equity, a rating which is not bad, although not worth bragging about. But in the WEF’s most recent ranking, Canada has fallen to 25th place. Let’s see why.

The equity literature suggests that three systemic factors in economically privileged societies, such as Canada, maintain economic inequality between women and men: women remain the primary care-givers of children and family members, the employment environment does not accommodate women’s greater domestic contribution and hiring, promotion and compensation practices remain inequitable.

A crucial consideration in economic inequality is the availability of childcare for working mothers. Yet unlike most other economically privileged nations, Canada doesn’t have a national public childcare system. Social policy experts know that quality childcare is the cornerstone not only for healthy child development but also for women’s equality. Some nations provide childcare for up to 100 per cent of children between the age of three and six. In fact, Denmark, Italy, Sweden, the United Kingdom and even the U.S. invest more per capita in early childhood development services than Canada does.

However, one of the first decisions the Harper government made in 2006 was to cancel plans to establish the national childcare program, despite the fact that most Canadians and the majority of parliamentarians in the House during the previous government of Paul Martin supported this proposed and long-awaited programme.

The Harper replacement was the Canada Child Tax Benefit, which merely provides parents a taxable $100 per month per child. This so-called “benefit” only marginally enables parents and working moms to have access to quality daycare.

The other major reason for women’s economic inequality is the lack of pay equity. Across the board women do not earn as much compensation as men, even in the same positions.

Economic status for Canadian women took a big hit in 2009, when the Harper
government overturned federal protection for women’s right to pay equity. At that time the government introduced the Public Sector Equitable Compensation Act, but as part of the 2009-2010 budget, making it very difficult for the opposition parties to vote the Equitable Compensation Act down.

But contrary to the act’s title, there’s nothing equitable about it. On the contrary, the newly legislated criteria for evaluating equitable compensation reintroduced gender discrimination into pay practices. The act permits public-sector employers to consider “market demand” in determining compensation. This practice ensures higher pay for men even if the type of work is of equal value.

Clearly, gender equality for Canadian women requires at least two policy changes: Canada should provide quality public childcare so that women can have the job opportunities, education and training that they need to fully participate in today’s economy and Canada should introduce pay equity covering public and private-sector employment.

Women’s equality in Canada

22% Women represented in federal parliament

49th Canada’s ranking for women’s representation

12 Status of Women’s offices closed by government

25th Canada’s ranking by the World Economic Forum for pay equity

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