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Here’s what needs to change to close the wage gap for B.C. women

March 11, 2024
By Brishti Basu, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Tyee

Photo: Adobe Stock

Access to child care remains one of the biggest barriers to closing the wage gap between men and women in B.C., says Véronique Sioufi, a race and socioeconomic equity researcher at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

In a conversation with The Tyee in advance of International Women’s Day, Sioufi, whose research background includes labour and economic geography, broke down the barriers to pay equity facing women in B.C., and the solutions that are — and are not — currently on the table.

Along with parenthood and child care, Sioufi highlights a “drastic prejudice” in B.C. shown by the number of transgender and non-binary workers among the lowest earners, along with lower incomes for Indigenous women and women of colour.

Drawing on her research and the latest data and studies, Sioufi discussed the wage gaps and workplace inequities facing women in B.C., whether recent policies and legislation aimed at narrowing the gaps have worked, and what’s needed.


The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Tyee: What are some of the biggest challenges facing B.C. women in the workplace or when trying to find work?

Véronique Sioufi: There’s a number of challenges because, for the most part, as much as we try to move towards equal pay for equal work, the division of domestic and care work is not equal. Women continue to be predominantly responsible for care work at home, for child care and we saw how much that is true with the pandemic.

When you’re making that decision of who stays home with the kids when schools are shut down, it ends up likely being the partner who is the primary parent or the one that’s making the least money. And typically, in both cases, that’s going to be the mother. So parenthood is a big factor.

It’s also the way that care responsibility translates into the job market. When we look at the highest paid sectors, women are underrepresented, and when we look at the absolute lowest paid sector, like food and accommodation services, women are overrepresented.

Even if we get equal pay for equal work, it’s about how we value the work that women do, and how we have gender divisions in the job market that persist.

What does the latest data say about women’s employment and earnings since pandemic restrictions were lifted in B.C., and how do other socioeconomic factors affect this?

The latest available data from 2022 says B.C. has one of the highest wage gaps in the country. Women make 83 cents on the dollar [compared to men] in B.C., so there’s a 17-per-cent wage gap. For Canada, the wage gap is 13 per cent.

That’s for all women compared to all men.

For racialized women, we’re down to 77 cents on the dollar and for Indigenous women, it is 75 cents on the dollar.

Education does impact the income that you’re able to attain, the kind of jobs you’re able to reach, and we’ve gotten to the point in Canada where the proportion of Canadian-born women with a bachelor’s degree is higher than men.

We can look to that as an explanation of how the wage gap has closed, but of course, it can’t be the whole story, because if women are higher educated than men, then why are we making less?

One factor is that this value of higher education doesn’t translate for immigrant women. An immigrant woman who has an education from outside Canada is going to have a bigger wage gap than a Canadian educated immigrant. Education from non-white countries in particular — it can be higher quality or the same quality as what we’re offering here — is undervalued.

There is also still what is known as the “motherhood penalty and the fatherhood premium.” This is where women who are mothers are perceived as not being as loyal to a company or run the risk that they are too occupied with their domestic labour.

On the flip side, men who are fathers make more money than men who are not fathers. They’re perceived as more stable, as needing to keep that job to provide an income for the family.

What are employment statistics like for transgender women and non-binary or gender diverse people?

There’s not a ton of granular data available when it comes to looking at this.

For B.C., if you divide up the population by five in terms of their earnings, in that bottom quintile there is an overrepresentation of LGBTQ2S+ folks, at 29.6 per cent, versus straight people at 18.6 per cent in the bottom quintile.

That’s even worse for trans and non-binary folks. Almost 40 per cent of trans and non-binary folks are in that bottom quintile of average earnings.

That’s a pretty drastic prejudice that we have in the job market.

On the flip side, there’s so few trans and non-binary folks as the highest income earners in B.C. that that data is suppressed for privacy reasons. For LGBTQ2S+ folks overall, there’s only 13.7 per cent in the highest quintile compared to straight folks at 22.5 per cent.

Has introducing a $10-a-day child-care program had an impact on helping more women return to work?

In her budget speech, Finance Minister Katrine Conroy said that “affordable and accessible child care has contributed to more than 100,000 women joining the workforce since 2017.”

She must be referring to all of the government’s affordability measures together contributing to more women entering the workforce — including the Child Care Fee Reduction Initiative and the Affordable Child Care Benefit — because of course we haven’t reached the goal of 15,000 $10/day child-care spots in the province, let alone the universal $10/day child care the government promised in 2017.

It’s not just that we’re behind on child care, but it’s also not means-tested right now. It’s not like the seats that we have available are earmarked exclusively for low-income families.

Universal child care would definitely go a long way to closing the gender wage gap, but with the province so far behind, in the short term we at least need an equity-informed approach to distributing the available spots.

Pay transparency legislation was introduced by B.C. last November as a way to reduce the gender-based wage gap. Has it worked so far?

I think it’s too soon to tell. I think it’ll probably take a number of years before we can credit the Pay Transparency Act with moving the marker.

There’s a pretty long rollout in terms of when employers have to participate, but it’s a step in the right direction. How effective it is will depend on a few things. Who is going to have access to that data? How public is that data going to be? And what kind of enforcement is there around this?

With pay transparency, what they’re going for is public pressure to have pay equity in your workplace, but there’s no enforcement of pay equity. We don’t have pay equity legislation in B.C., which is pretty bad.

The ideal scenario is not just really effective pay transparency with data that we can all access, but proactive pay equity legislation that requires employers take action to close those wage gaps once they’re identified.

Are there any other solutions on the table to reduce these inequities for women and gender diverse people in B.C.?

Some really basic ones, like more sick days, would be great. We had asked for 10 paid sick days coming out of the pandemic partly because we saw how disproportionately women are responsible for child care and how that impacts their work.

It’d be great to have those 10 paid sick days to bring a little bit more security for folks who have to stay home not only when they’re sick… but to stay home when their child is sick.

My second point is that women are overrepresented in precarious non-standard jobs and those jobs are less likely to have benefits and protections. Also if you’re a newcomer to Canada, if you’re on a temporary foreign worker permit, you’re probably less likely to complain about your working conditions if they’re not meeting the legal standards.

One of the things that would help — besides improving the Employment Standards Act and who’s covered by it — is union density.

B.C. has a Labour Relations Code review actually happening right now, so there’ll probably be revisions to the code, which manages our Charter rights to organize as workers.

We’re looking to expand access to unionization to more workers. That’s the ideal because the more people who are unionized, the more they’ll have the job security, benefits and protections that can close that wage gap.

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