Photo: PmunozR Photography/flickr

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When newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveiled Canada’s first gender-balanced cabinet last fall, the concept of gender parity at the highest levels of government still mystified some. “Why 50:50?” they asked. Trudeau’s response resonated across the Twitterverse: “Because it’s 2015.”

“Because it’s 2015” implies an incredulity that the question still needs to be asked. It is time for gender parity to be a given. Canada’s most diverse, most representative cabinet is in some ways groundbreaking; but its easy symmetry and media-friendly symbolism also obscure the more complex obstacles to true gender equity across Canada.

How do we as a society value women? How do we value the work that they do, the culmination of their time and their skills? How can we ensure that women’s work is valued to the same extent as men’s? A new report from the Parkland Institute, written by Queen’s National Scholar and law professor Kathleen Lahey, examines the Alberta case to answer these questions.

And the answers are not pretty. Even though it’s 2016, women in Alberta now face some of the largest gender pay gaps in Canada. While Canada has the third-highest pay gap in the OECD countries, if ranked separately, Alberta would have the one of the highest pay gaps of all. The gender income gap for Alberta is 41 per cent, while the average for Canada as a whole is just 33 per cent. In 2016, Alberta still lags well behind the gains made elsewhere.

Even in 2016 in Alberta, the total gender wage gap is 50 per cent — a consequence of economic, social and structural reasons. The total of all incomes reaching women from all wages, business profits, investments, or family law allowances remain just under 50 per cent of men’s total market incomes. Women would have to work two years for each year worked by men to obtain equal incomes; by Canada Day 2016, men will have, on average, already earned what it will take women all 12 months to earn. Lahey’s analysis shows that women’s average wages ($28,132) in Alberta in 2016 will likely be less than half of men’s average wages ($58,080) in 2016. In percentage terms, Alberta’s average gender wage gap will likely have grown to 51.6 per cent.

While anti-discrimination legislation ensures that women receive equal pay for equal work — that is, in the same or very similar positions — there are no measures to ensure women receive equal pay for equal worth — for doing work that has the same or comparable value to that done by men. This is crucial in Alberta’s economic landscape, where the majority of occupations remain highly gender-segregated. More than 20 specific occupations have more than 70 per cent or 80 per cent of workers of one gender or the other. There is no crossover between these occupational categories — men’s and women’s most common occupations are completely different from each other. In the child-care and home support workers category, there were not enough men to be statistically counted.

The pay ranges associated with those highly gender-segregated occupations are also segregated. The report finds that average male wages in the most common male occupations range from a bottom hourly rate of $21.00 to a top rate of $62.50. In contrast, the range for women’s wages in the most common women’s occupations begins as low as $14.50 an hour and tops out at just $40.87.

These inequalities are further compounded by race, ethnicity, Indigenous heritage, and disability. Racialized, Aboriginal, and disabled women will benefit from pay equity programs targeted at undervalued common women’s jobs or at the largest or lowest-paid jobs, because intersecting forms of discrimination tend to suppress women’s wages further. However, intersectional discrimination also suppresses male wages, making it appear that there is less gender discrimination in such comparisons.

Lahey’s report demonstrates that gender pay inequalities lay at the core of women’s economic inequality in Alberta, and examines how virtually all market and government economic transactions reinforce and embed women’s inequalities through numerous channels. Pay equity legislation is the first and most fundamental step to addressing this discrimination. While six provinces have implemented pay equity laws, and three have pay equity negotiating frameworks for some public employees, only Alberta has neither. Exploring pay equity models in Canada and internationally, Lahey finds that the most effective legislation is compulsory, comprehensive, collaborative, and relies on ongoing enforcement and oversight mechanisms.

How does pay equity make women’s work “pay”? In dollar terms, women working full-time, full-year are on average making $31,100 less than their male colleagues per year. Even modest pay equity adjustments could close those gaps by $2,500 to $3,300 in 2016 alone.

Moreover, pay equity legislation can also provide financial incentives for provincial and federal governments. The report demonstrates that pay adjustments of just 7.7 per cent would produce an increase in government revenues of nearly $1.2 billion this year alone.

In 2016, women in Alberta still face more precarious employment than men. Women in Alberta work a “double shift,” performing 35 hours of unpaid work weekly — twice as much as the average 17 hours of unpaid work performed by men. Women in Alberta have one of the highest rates of part-time work: 70 per cent of all part-time jobs in the province are held by women. Furthermore, 62 per cent of all minimum wage earners in Alberta are women.

In 2016, women are still disadvantaged by inflexible work conditions and lack of child care; and face financial penalties for requiring flexible schedules or taking time off while their children are young. The combination of inadequate child-care subsidies (the NDP promise of $25 a day child care is as likely as oil rebounding to the $100 mark…) and a provincial tax transfer system that privileges single-breadwinner households further penalizes mothers who seek to return to the workforce.

Pay equity adjustments on their own cannot eliminate all the causes of women’s income inequalities. But the opposite is also true: without robust pay equity mechanisms, Alberta cannot fully eliminate all gendered economic inequalities.

In an economic downturn, it’s easy to dismiss changes to the status quo as “luxuries” or “extras” that we “simply cannot afford.” The Parkland Institute study proves the opposite: our province cannot afford to maintain the status quo on a foundation of inequality. Pay equity legislation “pays”: for women, for their families, for our economy, and for government revenues.

So, Alberta: it’s 2016. Will this be the year we begin rolling back the widening gender income gap?

Rebecca Graff-McRae is Research Manager at the Parkland Institute.

Photo: PmunozR Photography/flickr

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