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It's expensive to be a woman

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The great thing about International Women's Day is indeed the opportunity to discuss how to make women's lives better. When it comes to the economics of being a woman, we really do need to consider this dual injustice: Women earn less than men, but are expected to spend more. 

Women often receive less pay for the same job -- in Nova Scotia, women earn on average just 70 cents for every dollar earned by a man (and that is down from 79 cents in 1999!). 

According to Statistics Canada, 68 per cent of low-wage workers (those earning less than $15/hour) in Nova Scotia are women.

The paid work women tend to do, like "helping" or child care work, is compensated poorly. 

Even in the well-paid professions of medicine and law, gender gaps for women exist.

The majority of workers providing care to our most vulnerable members of society are women and this work is undervalued and badly paid, if paid at all.

Unpaid child care, elder care, and familial responsibilities fall predominantly to women.

This takes us away from paid work. 

The rewards are expected to be personal, not monetary. Being undervalued and underpaid are not lifestyle choices.

AND, even though we make fewer dollars, it costs more of them to participate in the world as a woman. Those additional expenses are incurred for feminine performance and all menstruating bodies.

The expectations of presentation are enormous, and they are based on white, middle-class Western ideals of femininity.

These practices are constructed as choices, but the social consequences of not participating in these rituals are very real.

 These pressures are especially harsh for marginalized women. They're exacerbated for Indigenous, racialized, disabled, or elderly women, or for women who don't identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.

If you want to reject a social norm, you pretty much have to occupy a position of privilege already. 

And most products and services cost more for women than men. 

Shampoos, soaps, razors and deodorant cost more than those marketed to men. 

Hair cuts and clothing cost more.

If it's pink or purple, it definitely costs more. Women pay more for big ticket items like car loans and cars, mortgages and houses. That's right: women earn less but pay more.

And as you get older, those grey hairs, stray hairs, unruly flesh....It all costs money to manage....and there's pressure to buy-in. 

Women on income assistance are hit particularly hard. In Nova Scotia, a personal allowance of $255 per month is intended for groceries, clothing, cleaning supplies, toiletries, and in most cases transportation.

Then, for those that menstruate, there's tampons and pads. 

At $20 a month, that's eight per cent of the monthly budget. Fortunately women in Nova Scotia pay no tax on these products, which is not the case for many women in Canada who do not pay GST anymore, but still pay provincial sales tax.

There also remains cultural shame and stigma that surrounds menstruation -- and it's magnified by the shame and stigma of poverty.

Two women at Adsum shared how they deal with the fact that tampons and pads are too expensive; one woman has used kitchen sponges from the dollar store when times were tight. Another woman re-uses face cloths even though they're folded and bulky.

It costs to be a woman; it costs exponentially more when you're living in poverty. 

The costs are not just monetary.

The social costs, too, are enormous.

What can be done? Lots. Here are a few things.

About that price discrimination, perhaps our legislators can pass laws that prohibit discrimination based on gender? In New York gender price gouging for services is illegal, but there are no laws banning the same in retail products.

Our legislators could pass laws to close the gender pay gap in the economy.

What if we collectively decided (meaning via our progressive income tax system) to compensate women for all the unpaid care work they do? A recent Australian study -- using not only replacement value -- that is if all the unpaid work was given an equivalent market wage for that job (which is low because care work is so poorly paid in the workplace) but also opportunity cost (what caregivers could earn on average if they were earning their potential in the paid economy)—places the value of this work at a whopping 50 percent of that country's GDP!!

Bottom line? Let's make women count.

Cheryl MacIsaac resides in Halifax, where she is Program Manager for Adsum for Women and Children www.adsumforwomen.org with Christine Saulnier, Nova Scotia Director, CCPA.

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