Alberta’s change to a flat-rate income tax in 2001 helped create the largest wage gap between men and women in Canada, according to a new report on gender wage and economic parity.

The report, published by the University of Alberta think tank The Parkland Institute, validates what Chelsey Hesketh has long suspected.

‘If you’re not working in the oilpatch, you just have an ordinary job, it’s just difficult to live in general,” said Hesketh, 26, who works as a massage therapist while her husband brings home the bigger paycheque as a scaffolder.

Chelsey Hesketh

Massage therapist Chelsey Hesketh didn't really need a report to tell her women earn much less than men in Alberta.

The  report, The Alberta Disadvantage: Gender Taxation and Income Inequality, was written by Queens University law professor Kathleen Lahey. She said the wage difference in Alberta was wider than she expected.

"It's a shocking 42 percent,” said Lahey, who noted the gap is “much, much less in other provinces.”

A historical  comparison of incomes earned by Alberta women over two decades shows impressive gains were made until 1993, when rapid deterioration began. As of 2011, women in Alberta were paid, on average, 63 per cent of a man’s income. In Ontario, the study showed women fared better, earning about 74 per cent of a man’s wage.   

Other factors that caused the large wage discrepancy, Lahey said, include a lack of adequate subsidized child-care spaces, high cost of child care and fewer opportunities for women if they decide to have more than one child.

Findings surprised report author

Lahey said the high cost of child care forces women to take on more unpaid work at home, and seek part-time employment to try and make end meets. That puts more women at a disadvantage, said Lahey. “There’s less ability to engage in the type of paid work that will enable them to be self-supporting, or to have an equal income.”

She said while Alberta has high-paying jobs in the oil industry, they are often not well-suited for women trying to raise families. Statistics in the peer-reviewed report compared the wages of men and women in Alberta and show the gap is wider in Calgary than in Edmonton, while on average both men and women earned more in Calgary.

Some findings in the report came as a surprise to  Jacqueline Foord, CEO of the Edmonton YWCA. “It’s disconcerting,” said Foord, who’s well-aware of the wage gap between men and women, but didn’t realize it was so wide in Alberta compared to other provinces. “It’s not good news for our economy, or for women in Alberta,” she said.

Edmonton Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman said the findings prove that, “we’ve taken a giant step backwards on gender equality” in Alberta.

Responding to a question on CBC’s Radio at Noon, Alberta Premier Jim Prentice said he hasn’t read the report but pointed out that the issue of income gaps is more complicated in Alberta, “because we have an industrial economy.”

The Parkland report makes fourteen recommendations that deal primarily with the tax structure. Among the recommendations:

  • reject new consumption taxes;
  • establish a pay equity commission with specific targets;
  • create more subsidized child-care and elder-care programs.

For Chelsey Hesketh, news that the wage gap is bigger in Alberta than the rest of the country is troubling. She said it reaffirms her decision not to have children just yet.