Thursday, 29 September 2016

Does poverty have a gender?

With tongue firmly in cheek, comedian Jeremy McLellan recently commented on the “true” cause of the gender wage gap, saying:

Men naturally gravitate toward higher paying professions – like doctor, or engineer, or CEO… whereas women naturally gravitate toward lower paying professions… like female doctor, or female engineer, or female CEO.

Of course! If women have wage-gap or employment equity woes, they have only themselves to blame. If they wanted to have greater economic opportunities, they shouldn’t have been born female!

While Mr. McLellan was of course joking, the sad thing is it’s a joke with more than a ring of truth to it. And this truth has been widely recognized. Take for example Prime Minister Trudeau, who recently endorsed the ONE campaign, which strives to eradicate extreme poverty in the world. The position of ONE holds that poverty disproportionately impacts women. According to ONE, poverty, when you get right down to it, is sexist. In an open letter, Trudeau stated: “I wholeheartedly agree. Poverty is sexist.”

This is not to suggest that poverty does not affect men. But when one considers the metrics that determine poverty, such as education and training, discrimination and access to financial services, women do suffer at markedly higher rates than men. The ONE campaign is focused on the inequality suffered by women on the international level, but it’s also important to look specifically at the economic and employment mistreatment of women in Canada.

Why it’s important to address the wage-gap and employment equity

Does it matter that poverty has a gender bias? The short answer is: yes - it impacts all of us, no matter our gender. Beyond the basic need for a fair and just world, gender-based income inequality can harm families and communities. Women have been found to invest a disproportionately large amount of their incomes back into their families. This investment in the family can have a crucial impact on reducing generational poverty and may benefit communities over the long term through improved health, productivity, and may serve to reduce crime.

Canadian women and unions have long been fighting for pay equity, governed by the Pay Equity Act[1] which requires employers in Ontario to offer men and women equal pay for equal work, and employment equity, governed by the Employment Equity Act, 1993[2], which requires employers in Ontario to remove barriers for women, aboriginal people, members of visible minorities, and people with disabilities. Women and unions are largely responsible for these highly important pieces of legislation.

But despite all of the hard-won gains over the years, women in Canada still experience unjust obstacles to economic empowerment. The majority of Canadian women still earn on average about 73 cents for every dollar men earn. The gap remains when controlled for measures like occupations and hourly wages.

Though some explain away the wage gap as the result of women and men making different lifestyle choices, such as through a willingness or unwillingness to accept overtime work or to require flexible hours, even if such factors are accepted as impacting the wage gap, it doesn’t provide a full explanation. A large portion of the wage gap is still unexplained. Research into the issue has found that this unexplained gap may be linked to gender-based wage discrimination. The Ontario Ministry of Labour reports that “research and anecdotal information point to the continued existence of systemic gender discrimination and biased societal attitudes towards women, whether conscious or unconscious.” In terms of the gender wage gap, discrimination is often reflected in the undervaluation of women’s work. A truly disappointing situation in a country which prides itself on its human rights record.

The situation in Canada is so grave that, in its analysis regarding the implementation of the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the UN Human Rights Committee has expressed concern about, “the persisting inequalities between women and men” in Canada.

The Committee is particularly concerned with several issues in Canada, including:
(a)    The high level of the pay gap, which particularly impacts low income and women from visible minorities;
(b)   the fact that the legislation relating to equal pay differs at the federal, 
provincial and territorial levels and for the public and private sectors, and does not exist in some provinces;
(c)    the underrepresentation of women in leadership positions in the public and private sectors; and
(d)   the failure to enforce or ensure employment equality in the private sector across the country. It further regrets that the State party has not yet adopted regulations to implement the Public Sector Equitable Compensation Act.

Canada, quite simply, must do better. The good news is that Canada can do better. There is a political solution to many of the concerns noted by the UN. Prime Minister Trudeau, in taking the semi-controversial step of appointing Canada’s first gender-balanced cabinet “because it’s 2015”, has already begun to address one of the underrepresentation of women in leadership positions, but there is much more to be done.

The persistent wage and employment equity gap has the obvious effect of lowering earning power of women and, therefore, puts women at an increased risk of falling into poverty. This risk is only heightened if women have children and separate or divorce their partners. Unless life insurance, or a survivor’s benefit is in place, becoming widowed would also increase the risk of poverty.

Their reduced earning power leaves women in the unenviable position of being less able to save for retirement. This explains why women over age 65 are more likely than men of the same age to live in poverty. As reported here, “the risk of falling into poverty means that some women are sometimes forced to stay in abusive relationships, despite the danger.” Clearly, this is an issue which must be acknowledged and addressed. To do this, however, we must proceed from the understanding that poverty is indeed sexist. Only then will we, as a nation, be able to begin to fix the problems.

Prime Minister Trudeau has taken some important first steps, but it cannot all be left to our elected officials. All of us must be part of the solution. We must all join female workers and unions in demanding that women have wage and employment equity. Not because they are women, but because they are human beings.

[1] R.S.O. 1990, c. P.7
[2] 1993, S.O. 1993, c. 35

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