Pay gap between male and female professors continues to plague Canadian universities

Preliminary data from Statistics Canada reveals a persistent gender wage gap at Canadian universities.

Structural issues are preventing women from reaching the higher ranks, some say

On average, male professors earn more than female professors at the University of Alberta. (David Bajer/CBC)

At the University of Alberta, the average salary of a female faculty member is almost $19,000 less than her male counterpart. At the University of Calgary, that gap grows to more than $23,000. 

Furthermore, preliminary data from Statistics Canada reveals that the wage gap between genders is a pervasive trend across all Canadian universities except for three — OCAD University, a Toronto art and design school, plus Capilano University and the University of the Fraser Valley in B.C.

The data, released last month, suggests that schools with larger research footprints have wider pay gaps. 

At the U of A, for example, the average salary of a male professor in 2019-20 was $169,425; female professors earned, on average, $18,825 less. The gap narrows — but not by much — when the historically high-earning faculties of medicine and dentistry are excluded.

Audrey Giles earned her PhD at the U of A and is currently a professor at the University of Ottawa. She is lobbying both institutions to close the gap. 

"There's a strong case to be made that inequity in pay needs to stop," Giles told CBC News.

In a letter she plans to send to Bill Flanagan, the U of A's new president, she will ask the school to take immediate steps to address pay inequities.

What's behind the gap?

Researchers say bias against women in academia is a systemic problem that goes beyond overt discrimination.

In a 2019 article for the Canadian Journal of Higher Education, researchers reviewed public sector salary disclosure data from 1996 to 2016 at Ontario universities, finding that pay gaps increased as women moved up the ranks.

Their findings support what is known as the "leaky pipeline" problem: that is, when women leave academia earlier than men due to challenges like a lack of role models or a lack of supports for new parents.

Ivy Bourgeault, a professor at the U of O, said female professors with children often feel pressured to spend their time doing less prestigious administrative and curriculum work.

"That is incredibly important for the university but very devalued," said Bourgeault, who is a university research chair in gender, diversity and the professions.

With less time to spend on research, a requirement to becoming tenured, women end up taking longer to move up into the higher-earning ranks.

A demographic shift is also at play.

"You've got professors who are getting older, and because the professors are getting older you're seeing a shift in the structure of the staff," said Teresa Omiecinski, a senior analyst at Statistics Canada.

Statistics Canada data shows that since 1970, the percentage of full professors and associate professors has increased, whereas the percentage of lower-ranked assistant professors has decreased.

Women are much better represented among the associate and assistant professor ranks. In 2018, only 29 per cent of full professors were women.

Rank and age do not explain the entire gap.

A 2011 equity review by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) accounted for academic rank and age when examining Canadian professors' salaries between 1986 and 2006.

The association found a small, but persistent gender pay gap — about 4.5 per cent at the full professor level.

The remainder, according to CAUT president Brenda Austin-Smith, "has no other explanation but sheer discrimination on the basis of sex and gender."

Closing the gap

In recent years, many universities — including the University of British Columbia, the University of Toronto, McMaster University and the University of Waterloo — have given female professors raises or one-time lump-sum payments to address historic equity.

The University of Alberta went that route last year, offering women who were full professors a 5.8 per cent raise and cash sum that was based on years of service. Female faculty members not at the full professor level received a $1,500 payment.

"But 5.8 per cent is not $23,000," Giles said, referring to the average salary gap at the school (excluding medicine and dentistry) in 2019.

Austin-Smith said raises and payments are good steps, but schools should also be regularly studying the situation and addressing the systemic issues that lead to inequities.

"You have to pay them what you owe them and you have to dig deep into those structures and processes," she said.

That type of work is already happening at the U of A.

U of A spokesperson Hallie Brodie said in an email that the university is adopting an updated hiring and recruitment policy that "encourages a more diverse and equitable faculty and staff population."

The school is also analyzing the diversity of its workforce through a new demographic census that will take place every three years. The school is still analyzing data from the 2019-20 school year.

Other equity-seeking groups

Though there is less national data available, researchers suspect that there are also significant pay gaps for other groups, including male and female contract lecturers and teachers of different races. 

CAUT's 2018 equity report, which relied on census data from 2016, found that the wage gaps exist between white male university teachers and all other groups. The gap was the widest for female teachers of colour. 

Results from the past two censuses — 2011 and 2016 — show the pay gap between teachers of colour and white teachers was widening.

"We all need to take a stance," Giles said.


Madeleine Cummings is a reporter with CBC Edmonton. She covers local news for CBC Edmonton's web, radio and TV platforms. You can reach her at madeleine.cummings@cbc.ca.