Gender wage gap adding to income inequality, Oxfam says in new report

Canadian women are being shortchanged on job opportunities and pay and it's making income inequality worse, Oxfam Canada said in a new report Monday.

Report says more work needs to be done to fight income inequality for all

Oxfam is one of many groups that have called for an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour as a way to fight income inequality between the sexes. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

Canadian women are being shortchanged on job opportunities and pay and it's making income inequality worse, Oxfam Canada said in a new report Monday.

The anti-poverty agency said Monday that despite enjoying higher levels of education than ever before and an increased access to the workforce, women continue to face barriers to good employment and fair wages, and as a result are more likely to be poor — both in Canada and abroad.

"Women workers may be good for business, but the bottom line is that they are getting shortchanged," said Dana Stefov, a co-author of the report and the senior women's rights policy adviser with Oxfam Canada. "Women currently subsidize the economy with labour that is cheap, undervalued and often even free."

"Addressing the unequal economics of women's work is essential to closing the gap in earnings and opportunities between women and men, and between rich and poor," the report said.

The report cites some alarming statistics to back up its claim. Of the 500 occupations currently tracked by Statistics Canada in its monthly labour force survey, women earn less than men in 469 of them, Oxfam says, even among people with similar educational levels performing similar work.

Women in Canada are three times more likely than men are to work part time, and that's not generally by choice but rather "because family care responsibilities fall to them," Oxfam says. According to Statistics Canada, the typical Canadian women does 3.9 hours worth of unpaid care work per day. That compares with 2.4 hours for men.

Oxfam estimates that if they were paid fairly for that sort of unpaid work, Canadian women would earn an extra $192 billion every year.

The report credits Quebec's subsidized daycare program with being a step in the right direction toward fixing that imbalance, and one that allowed families to make choices that increased their income. 

When it was founded in 1996, the program cost roughly $2.2 billion per year to run (roughly 0.7 per cent of the province's GDP) and prompted an upsurge in employment among women, especially single mothers, whose poverty rate fell from 36 per cent to 22 per cent. At the same time, their median real after-tax income shot up by 81 per cent.

That's helped make the program more than able to pay for itself over the years, Oxfam says. So similar programs elsewhere in Canada would help, the group says.

Education a factor

The wage gap takes a long time to bridge even as careers and salaries progress. Oxfam says a woman in Ontario today has to work until she's 79 years old to make the same amount of money for retirement as a man who retired at 65.

"Nowhere in the world do women have access to the same kinds of jobs, the same degree of job security and the same wages as men," the report reads.

Issues with part time work are a major factor in the wage gap, but they don't entirely explain it away, because it persists in one form or another regardless of hours worked or educational level.

It's even worse for certain demographic groups. Among Aboriginal women, the wage gap actually increases with education —  from 26 per cent among all Aboriginal women, to 33 per cent for those with university degrees.

Nearly 60 per cent of all minimum wage workers are women, and that's why Oxfam says one of the simplest ways of tackling the gender wage gap would be to institute a national $15 per hour minimum wage across the country.

"In no jurisdiction of Canada is the minimum wage currently sufficient to meet the basic necessities of a single person, let alone an entire family," Oxfam says.

While Oxfam says policy makers are taking steps to bridge the gap, at the current pace of progress it will take another 135 years until women and men are paid equitably.

"Gender inequality does not happen by accident," Oxfam said. "It is rooted in long established norms, attitudes and beliefs, and it can be exacerbated by laws, policies and government spending. Government action can, however, act to reduce inequality between men and women at work."