Women deserve good jobs with livable wages and fair working conditions. They deserve opportunities to learn and advance. They deserve adequate support to balance work, family and personal time. Yet too many women experience barriers to workplace equality.
Fair work is about economic justice for women
Our economy benefits when women participate equally in the workforce. But too many women are working in part-time and precarious jobs, or work in sectors that offer low pay, poor working conditions and few opportunities for advancement.
We often hear that women have to “lean in” or that we can achieve gender equality by improving the numbers of women in management or STEM careers. Unless we examine the structural barriers that limit workplace fairness, any gains that some women make will not be shared by women in all job classes, categories and sectors. We need to think differently.
The status quo isn't working for women
It’s clear that women are at a disadvantage in the world of work. The situation is even more bleak for women with disabilities, Indigenous women, immigrant women, Black and racialized women, and lone parents, who are often over-represented in low-wage and precarious work, or excluded from the workforce altogether.
Women also continue to do the majority of unpaid household work, including caring for children and sick or aging relatives. This is known as “the second shift” and can impact their choice of job, or limit their chances of promotion. Our economy’s reliance on women’s unpaid care work contributes to women’s poverty, affects mental and physical health, lifetime earnings and increased family stress.
Stereotypes about women and mothers have a demonstrated impact on hiring decisions and also impact opportunities to advance at work. The “motherhood penalty” is real.
The world of work is changing. Automation and other technological advances will have serious impacts on women’s jobs. The rapidly aging population means that demands for caregiving are growing. Without a significant investment in our already-stretched public care services, women will be left to pick up the slack.
We asked women to send us their stories of the challenges they face being a woman at work. Here’s a sample of what we heard:
Karen, 49: “As a member of a construction union I have been very fortunate to have worked steady for most of my career. With that said, women are still first on the layoff list, not looked upon favourably when taking time off to look after children or elderly parents. So although we are paid the same hourly rate as our male counterparts, rarely do women find themselves being able to earn the same as men.”
Kathleen, 27: “I was fired from a job that I was extremely good at and valued by my employees I oversaw, because I asked to use my sick days to deal with my children's illness. My boss told me "You know I just don't think someone with a family you know so much responsibility can do the same job some dude without attachments can." I was fired days before Christmas on top of it and the reason was simply "We can't work together anymore." It was a slap in my face after months of working 70+ hour weeks on a 40 hour a week salary.”
Jennifer, 38: “I’m the mother of 3 children aged 10, 18 and 18. Presently I’m not in the workplace. I felt like after my kids were older I could go back to school and better all of our lives by doing so…My oldest are twins and both have a global developmental disability and epilepsy [and] still need supervision 24/7... I finished my programme at a private college last August…. I haven’t been able to look for employment after this gain because of a lack of care for my adult children. I can’t afford to pay for services for them and am now waiting on adult services lists, which could take a couple of years to kick in.”
LM, 54: “We need to push for benefits for ALL workers not just the full time ones. At age 55, I am working 4 different jobs, three of them on-call, but I don't have a stitch of dental care or drug benefits and only these last two years have I managed to come in above the poverty line for annual income. This makes it difficult to find extra money to get teeth fixed before they need to be pulled...social assistance only covers emergency dental treatments.”
Advancing gender equality at work
If we really want women to succeed in the workplace, we need both governments and employers to be willing to break down the barriers that keep women from work, and a willingness to make investments to help address one of the biggest challenges: unpaid care and household work.
Gender equality at work means fair wages and working conditions in all job categories and classes. It means a livable wage, access to comprehensive benefits and leaves regardless of whether a worker is full-time or part-time, hourly or salaried, permanent or temporary. It means opportunities for advancement and fair hiring policies. And it means control over one’s schedule, and it means workplace policies that help workers meet their family responsibilities.
Change must begin at the lowest levels of the company’s job categories and pay scales—it won’t trickle down from the top.
Governments can use employment standards to help promote gender equality and fair work for all workers, and ensure that labour legislation respects, protects and promotes the right to organize and bargain collectively.
The federal government must address the care crisis and the changing world of work by building and growing the care sector with good jobs that don’t rely on women’s unpaid work to carry this second shift.
- Launch a federal task force on care work and care jobs in Canada.
The task force should:
- Examine paid and unpaid care work and develop a federal strategy to meet the increasing demands for care;
- Reduce and redistribute women’s unpaid care work by improving access to public care services; and
- Create a labour market strategy for care jobs.
- Set standards in legislation to improve working conditions and address the challenges and needs of women workers, starting with, among others:
- Ensure all workers—regardless of whether they are full-time or part-time, temporary or casual, or hired through a temp agency—have equal terms, conditions and opportunities at work, and access to equitable wages and benefits.
- Help workers protect their personal and family time by giving all employees the “right to disconnect.”
- Make the federal minimum wage $15 an hour, indexed to increases in the average wage.
- Review and update the federal Employment Equity Act, improve mechanisms to hold employers accountable for their obligations, and create resources to assist in examining workplace practices for unconscious bias.
Women in Canada are done waiting for fair workplaces. It’s past time to level the playing field for working women.