Liberals' 1st gender-sensitive budget identifies gaps, funds possible fixes

From offering 18-month parental leave to targeting $7 billion of its infrastructure funding for child-care spaces, today's federal budget offers solutions to issues women often identify. Finance Minister Bill Morneau says his fixes will help grow the economy.

What keeps some women from working? Solve that and you'll grow the economy, budget suggests

Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau showed off copies of the 2017 budget book on their way into the House of Commons Wednesday. The images on the cover appeared to be perfectly gender balanced: two females, two males. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The cover on the second budget from Justin Trudeau's Liberals wasn't pink, but based on its contents, that might have been fair advertising.

From offering 18-month parental leave to targeting $7 billion of its infrastructure funding for child-care spaces, today's federal budget offers solutions to issues women often identify.

But it also laid out why this new shade of public policy looks good on everyone, regardless of gender.

Sixty measures in the 2017 federal budget affect men and women differently, according to analyses presented for the first time in their own budget chapter, on an equal footing with other chapters dedicated to tax fairness and the government's much-discussed skills and innovation strategy.

Women hit the streets south of the border to protest against a Trump administration perceived as hostile to women.

But the Canadian government has doubled down, trying to show it not only understands women's issues, but thinks solving them is smart fiscal policy.

"This is an instrument of change," Finance Minister Bill Morneau told host Rosemary Barton on Power & Politics Wednesday, promising that his budget's gender statement would get "more and more comprehensive" in the future.

"It's going to help us to ensure that women are more successful in our economy." 

Morneau's determined to get more women participating in the workforce. Currently, they make up 51 per cent of the population but 47 per cent of the labour force.

Gender-focused economic strategy could bring that number up.  

Data included in the budget document shows that while women's educational attainment has increased significantly over the last four decades, a substantial wage gap remains. 

Women are underrepresented in trades and disproportionately represented in lower-paying retail and social service sectors. In the private sector in particular, there are significantly fewer female executives.

Canada ranks relatively high among developed countries for women's overall participation in the labour market. But mothers are less likely to work compared with those in other countries with high-performing economies.

Immigrant women and Indigenous women face particular barriers, the budget said. Women and girls are more likely than men to experience poverty, violence and harassment.

More inclusive growth

How will the budget fix this?

The budget describes how Canada lags behind other countries in the affordability and the availability of regulated child-care spaces. 

Now a $7-billion slice of the $81-billion infrastructure package announced last November will be made available for early learning and child care. 

Provinces and territories will share jurisdiction over how this money is spent. But the budget suggests it could create up to 40,000 new subsidized child-care spaces and help train child-care workers to provide quality care. 

An unspecified portion will also be set aside for programs for on- and off-reserve Indigenous children.

Trudeau met Naadiya Moosajee, the CEO of a group developing the next generation of female engineering leaders in Africa, earlier this year. His government's recent budget wants women to benefit from funding targeted at scientific and technical fields, where they are underrepresented. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The budget's analysis of skills training programs revealed a gender gap in the job training offered under existing funding agreements with the provinces and territories. 

Only 44 per cent of program participants were women, the budget said.

The budget's $2.7-billion training funding boost makes a "renewed commitment" to increase the workforce participation of underrepresented groups. New programs need to respond to more diverse needs, the budget says.

Tech not gender-balanced

Whether it's construction jobs that benefit from infrastructure investments, or new venture capital designed to help high-tech startups grow, the underrepresentation of women in some industries means they're less likely to benefit from government funding.

Programs to attract young people to science and mathematics will try to create more gender balance in the future, the budget says. 

The budget also makes it easier for some students to qualify for federal grants and loans.

More than two-thirds of part-time students who receive federal assistance are women, and about 80 per cent of them are women with dependent children pursuing post-secondary education.

Finally, the budget discusses support for female entrepreneurs, something Canada's working on with Trump's U.S. administration, although specifics on new money weren't offered Wednesday.

Longer parental leave

Changes to the employment insurance system may also help parents and caregivers who take a break from work for family reasons.

An 18-month parental leave — something discussed by both social policy advocates and campaigning politicians in the past but never implemented by the federal government — will now be an option.

Parents can choose to take a longer leave at a lower benefit rate of 33 per cent of their eligible average weekly earnings instead of the 55 per cent rate currently offered for a 12-month leave.

If a maternity leave needs to start before a child is born, 12 weeks will now be offered instead of eight.

The budget also includes a new caregiving benefit of up to 15 weeks to allow workers time off to care for an injured or ill adult family member. 

Three tax credits currently available to caregivers have been simplified into one new caregiver credit the government says will help more people.

Trudeau joined Ivanka Trump, the daughter of U.S. President Donald Trump, for a roundtable with female executives during his visit to the White House on Feb. 13. The two governments have pledged to work together to provide more opportunities for women in business. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Morneau also highlighted the $101 million over five years for a strategy to address gender-based violence.

Other money is targeted for new gender and diversity training for judges in the wake of several high-profile cases where judges were found lacking in their treatment of victims.

Smart politics?

The budget's gender focus has obvious appeal for certain voters. But it may carry political risk.

Former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon suggests that the way this gender-based analysis is presented tells only part of the story.

Females are doing far better in the education system overall, she points out. Down the road, some traditional gender imbalances may disappear, and new ones could emerge. 

"There are issues out there," she said of the budget's focus on women. "But there will be issues on the other side too."

For example, men are overrepresented among older, laid-off manufacturing workers. The budget is silent on targeted solutions for them.

"Eventually there may be a quiet backlash," MacKinnon said.

"What helps with gender inequality is when people are treated equally," interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose told reporters. "These measures cannot just be for women; they have to be for all workers."

The federal government has been talking about gender-based analysis since 1995, but progress has been tepid. In some areas, data still isn't available to measure it.

Sahir Khan, now with the University of Ottawa but formerly of the parliamentary budget office, says the government's ability to go beyond documenting the problem and work on solving it remains an open question.

"There's a difference between reporting on a gender basis and managing [programs] through a gender lens," he said. "But this is a good first step."


Janyce McGregor

Parliamentary Bureau

Janyce McGregor has covered Canadian politics for CBC News since 2001. Send news tips to: Janyce.McGregor@cbc.ca


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