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March 8, 2011

The Gender Gap: IWD 2011

SS Editorial

Gender Gap

March 8, 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.

International Working Women’s Day was originally celebrated in 1911 by the European Socialist movement following the example of American working women’s struggles. From an emphasis on political empowerment, the movement expanded to demand full economic and social equality in the home and the workplace.

So how does the struggle for full equality measure up?

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index for 2010, Canadian women earn 76 cents for every dollar earned by Canadian men in similar work. The real income gap is even larger. Women participate less in the workforce than men (75% versus 83%) with the majority not doing similar work. This means that women earn only 71% of the average annual male income.

What is striking, despite better education and health gender outcomes than Canadian men, with women earning more degrees and living longer, is the question of political empowerment. Women only have 22% of political positions. That puts us at 36th globally, just behind Honduras.

In economic power terms the record is worse. According to a Catalyst survey of Canada’s top 500 corporations, only 18% of senior management and owners are women.

Incredibly, Canada’s gender equity position globally has actually slipped from seventh to twentieth place in the Global Gender Gap Index.

Why is this, and what affirmative action, can be taken to remedy ongoing gender discrimination?

Two Ghettos: Work and Home

From a materialist point of view, economic life in capitalism is conditioned by two realities, the need to produce to meet our needs, and the need to reproduce our ability to work – including raising the next generation of workers.

In Marxist economic terms, working people sell their ability to work, labour power, for subsistence, and they absorb the cost of raising the next generation of labour power, usually through unpaid female family labour.

In human history, this double task has been carried unequally – by women more than men. This gendered division of labour is the basis of women’s oppression – a division of labour that has given rise to patriarchy or sexist ideas about women’s capabilities and roles.

What do we see in Canada when we examine these two realms – the workplace and the private family home?

The Canadian labour market was long characterized by the exclusion of women. Not until after 1945 did women begin to participate in the labour force on a major scale. Even then, it is only in the last generation that labour force participation has become roughly equal, from 42% in 1990 to 48% today of 17 million workers.

Canadian women when they did enter the workforce have been segregated to lower paying occupations, such as clerical, sales and service, teaching and nursing, which make up 13 of the bottom 20 worst paying job categories according to the Armstrongs’ now classic book, The Double Ghetto.

Even though in the last generation women have begun to move into more traditional male occupations, especially in professional fields (some 55% according to Statistics Canada Women in Canada 2010 report), sex typing of occupations and pay inequity has actually increased in the last decade.

Nursing, for example, has actually become more female, rising from 87% to 92% between 1989 and 2010, and women with degrees, doing the same work as men with the same qualifications, have seen their pay drop from 86.8% of men’s wages to 68.3%.

And some occupations have remained essentially closed. Construction and trades, for example, still only have 6% female employment.

What is happening, despite better education and occupational mobility, is women are working in part-time jobs with fewer hours, lower pay and benefits, and fewer social rights.

The reasons for this persistent inequality are twofold. One, employers in the labour market prefer the creation of part-time positions as a way to cheapen wage costs. As Statistics Canada reports, despite full time jobs being the largest number of jobs, part-time job creation has outpaced full time job creation since the 2008 recession.

Contingent labour also reflects women’s’ double burden, to be the chief care givers for children and seniors. It is still the case that the great bulk of housework and care is done by women. While academics like the Armstrongs have documented a rise in men’s housework and family care, seventy three percent is still done by women as explained in a 2011 OECD report.

Working families, not surprisingly, then do the rational thing when the lesser earning partner, usually the woman, drops down to part-time work to cope with the double burden of wage work and unpaid family work.

What makes this especially inequitable is that unpaid family work makes up, at least, one third of the total economy, and could be as high as 50% of GDP.

Affirmative Actions?

As Cecilia Benoit has documented in her book, Women, Work and Social Rights, Canadian gender public policy occupies a middle position among advanced nations, though under the Harper Conservatives, public measures to lessen gender inequality have been weakened.

When it comes to social rights and programs, because women tend to be in more non-standard work, with lower pay and less continuous service, they get fewer benefits.

Take the case of Employment Insurance (EI). Being able to access EI depends on the number of hours of continuous employment. From an insurance system that covered 89% of wage workers, less than half of Canadian workers are now eligible, for pay or training – and this figure is even lower for part-time workers who are majority female.

This contribution based system of social wages also applies to the Canada Pension Plan. Women seniors are twice as likely to fall under the Low Income Seniors line as men.

The one exception is Medicare, the universal medical insurance program.

What about employment equity? In 1986, the federal government passed an Employment Equity Act that mandated collecting statistics and developing affirmative action plans in hiring and promotion – if a gender gap could be demonstrated within an occupation. But, since occupations tend to be gender segregated this legislation has proven to be of much less use than once thought.

Even in the case of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal gender pay award in 1998 to women working in the federal civil service, federal governments have successfully managed through the courts to avoid a massive wage adjustment.

Provincial governments, like the Manitoba and Ontario NDP in the 1990s, attempted to go a step further with pay equity evaluations across gender occupational divides. Only in Manitoba was some progress registered, while the Harris Tories in Ontario essentially sabotaged the equity process.

When it comes to women’s unpaid family labour the record is even more challenging.

While Canada has created a maternity leave program through Employment Insurance, only half of pregnant women have been able to access its benefits. And, with the decline of union density, parental leave top ups and longer leave times have only been achieved by a minority of wage workers. And reproductive health care still suffers from inequities like the lack of public education and provision of birth control.

Publically supported childcare is in an even more perilous state. One of the first things the Harper government did in 2006 was to cancel the National Child Care Accord, a federal-provincial cost-shared program to duplicate Quebec’s success with its $5 a day comprehensive child care program. This would have been the first major social program since the 1960s.

Accordingly, while provinces regulate and subsidize non-profit and profit child care, less than 30% of Canadian children can access the public system. At least half of all children still depend on the unpaid work of parents, mostly mothers, and relatives.

Much is to be done

Scandinavian countries, which have closed the wage gap to 92 cents on the dollar, show much can still be done to improve women’s equity in the workplace and the home. Better social wages, education and training, pay equity, home supports, for child and senior care, can be pursued. But the statistical reality is that the gender equity gap has been opening, not closing, in the last decade.

The opening of the gender gap is not an accident. Neo-liberal governments have pursued a low wage strategy, eroding social wages and employment standards, privatizing public jobs, restraining unions, and rolling back equity legislation. Among the least secure members of the working class, women are at risk.

Yes, there have been dramatic improvements since the 1960s, but there is nothing inevitable about further progress – as declining standards demonstrate. In the face of regression, we will have to rediscover the mass struggles, as well as the equity demands, that inspired the creation of International Women’s Day one hundred years ago.