Head of the household - Macleans.ca

Head of the household

More women are now prime family earners, but wage gaps persist

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Head of the household
Photograph by Yvonne Berg

The past few years have been difficult for Brian and Karen Rae. After working at K Tool & Die for more than a decade, Brian, 62, was laid off from the Oakville, Ont., plant, which made parts for the auto industry, in December 2008. At the time, Brian, who had been a toolmaker for 38 years, was earning about $58,000—a decent salary, he says, but not enough to live comfortably. “You can’t make it on one family income anymore.” As such, Karen has long worked full-time at Zellers, where she earns less than $20,000 a year assisting customers in the men’s department. The importance of her job has been “brought to the forefront” since he lost his, says Brian, along with the fact that surviving on it alone is impossible. While he completes a government-funded course in home renovation (he gave up on toolmaking after distributing 100 resumés to no avail), they’ve had to dip into their RRSPs. “It’s been a bit of a struggle to keep up with everything,” he says.

As Ottawa celebrates the country’s official return to economic growth, the Raes are not the only ones for whom recovery remains an abstract notion. Dubbed the “man-cession” or “he-session” for the way in which it snuffed out male-dominated manufacturing jobs, the downturn has dramatically altered the dynamic of many working class families. According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, men suffered 76 per cent of the overall job losses; Statistics Canada numbers show that in 2009, male employment levels dipped by a total of 249,000 over the previous year, compared to a decline of 28,000 for women.

The reality today is that a middle class existence, more often than not, means a two-income family, with more women assuming the role of primary breadwinner than ever before. But a stubborn fact, buried under decades of gender equality and diversity training, has resurfaced: despite comprising more than half the workforce and outpacing the educational achievements of men, women still make less. What’s happened since the recession, says Barb Byers, executive vice-president of the Canadian Labour Congress, “is the men have looked [at what their wives are earning] and said, ‘Wait a minute, these are really crappy jobs. You can’t feed a family on this.’ ” It’s a reality that, when combined with the downturn and the shrinking middle class, is wreaking havoc on family finances.

In the ’60s and ’70s, when women first entered the workforce in droves, there was a sense of liberation. They became lawyers, doctors, factory workers and businesswomen. “Women now intellectually believe and expect to do anything they want,” says Alison Konrad, a professor of organizational behaviour at the Richard Ivey School of Business. But increasingly, they are also prodded on by necessity—in 1980, 53 per cent of couples were dual earners; by 2007, the proportion had increased to 65 per cent, according to Clarence Lochhead, executive director of the Vanier Institute of the Family. “The majority of people earning the average family income are doing so on the basis of two earners,” says Lochhead. “That’s simply the reality.”

This can be explained, in part, by the declining fortunes of men. While average earnings are on the rise, median earnings (the level at which there is an equal number of workers above and below) are slowly sinking. According to Lochhead, from 1980 to 2007 the proportion of men earning between $20,000 and $60,000—what he describes as the “broad middle”—dropped from 50 to 42 per cent. “You’ve got some men who are out there, and they’re doing quite well,” he says, “but then you’ve got this other stream, showing up in greater proportion at the lower end of the income-earnings distribution.”

On top of this, men who do bring home big bucks are increasingly pairing up with women who do the same. And as young adults wait longer to get married, they’re more likely to share the same education—and income levels—as their spouses, a phenomenon known as “assortative mating.” “It used to be that college-educated men would marry women with a high school education,” says Nicole Fortin, a labour economist at the University of British Columbia. “Nowadays, this is less the case.” Instead, high earners tend to be part of “power couples,” which, she says, “relates to the relative increase in polarization” of the rich and poor.

But no matter where a household sits on the economic spectrum, if there are two income earners of opposite sex, chances are the woman is still making less. Though the size of the average gender wage gap depends on the methodology behind the calculations—recent estimates put it anywhere from 29 per cent (according to a recent Canadian Labour Congress report) to seven per cent—none dispute that it exists.

To be sure, women are making strides: their earnings are increasing faster than men’s, and more women are assuming the role of their family’s primary earner. But the fact that disparity persists, according to Sue Calhoun, president of the Canadian Federation of Business & Professional Women’s Clubs, points, in large part, to our failure to address an old problem—the lack of affordable child care. “For women in the workforce, it’s kind of like a bottom line,” she says, adding that the federal government’s annual child-care subsidy of $1,200 is not nearly enough. To care for their kids, she says, women are forced to cut back on their hours and take time out from the workforce, pulling down their income and potential for job advancement.

Head of the household

But the child-care argument and others like it, such as the misplaced belief that women are less likely than men to aspire to top jobs, don’t entirely account for the gender gap, says Christine Silva, director of research at Catalyst, a Toronto-based non-profit aimed at the advancement of women in business. For a study released last month, Catalyst surveyed high-potential earners (graduates from M.B.A. programs at top-ranking schools from 1996 to 2007) and analyzed the workplace experience of those who aspired to management positions and didn’t have children. What they found: “The gap between women and men starts at the very first job after they graduate,” she says. “Even after we’ve taken into account their prior work experience, the industry they work in, women start at lower levels.” Not only did the salary men pulled in from their first jobs outpace women by $4,600, but men were also more likely to start at more senior positions—a trend, says Silva, that “just intensifies over time.”

Despite the fact that men have so far suffered the lion’s share of job losses in the downturn, women have not been immune. According to the Canadian Auto Workers union, between 2008 and 2009 the number of women in the country’s manufacturing sector dropped by 9.1 per cent—on par with men. But unlike men in blue-collar sectors, many of whom are retraining to apply their skills to a trade or primary industry, such as mining or oil, women are often unable to land another relatively high-paying job, says Calhoun. “When they’re laid off, they’re just right back where they normally are, which is working at retail or in Tim Hortons.” (There may be more trouble ahead for women too, as governments eye cuts to the public sector—an area that is dominated by women.)

Since Hetal Parikh lost her job at Polywheels Manufacturing after the Oakville, Ont., factory shut its doors in 2008, she says finding something else has been tough. Though there have been postings for other manual labour jobs, the 37-year-old mother of two says they often require heavy lifting. “For a man, it’s easy. For a woman, it’s hard,” she says, adding that the pay doesn’t approach what she was making at Polywheels. (Parikh’s husband works in IT, but she says his salary alone is not enough to support the family.) Instead, she’s awaiting approval for government funding to retrain as a medical lab technician. While she expects to earn less than in the auto sector, the medical field, she says, is never in recession.

But as much as the so-called man-cession has highlighted some of the challenges facing women, it has also presented an opportunity for change. According to Konrad, who has been studying gender in the workplace for more than two decades, survey results have shown that each year incoming male university freshmen score lower on sexist attitudes and higher on gender egalitarianism. “These trends in attitude map onto the changes in behaviour. Men are doing more [of the household duties],” she says. But men are not the only ones experiencing an attitude adjustment. “As women, we can be a little hard on our men,” she says. “We’re happy to be equal partners, but to be the one who is taking care of them financially? We don’t have a template for that.” She would know. Ten years ago, her husband decided to leave his job to become a full-time volunteer activist. “That was a real shock to me,” she says. Though it took time to adapt, he now does the bulk of the cooking and cleaning, and, she says, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

As the economy recovers, so too will jobs. Government has moved to try to breathe life into the manufacturing sector, wiping out tariffs on imported equipment and implementing a $47.2-billion stimulus plan. But the old, postwar dynamic of the middle-class family—one supported by a single paycheque, a woman who raises children at home—is gone for good. At the Rae residence, Brian says that watching his wife become the primary breadwinner, however temporarily, has been tough. “It does make you feel like you’re not doing your job,” he says. But as he progresses through the home renovation course, he says his outlook has improved. “You [feel like you] can revisit the workforce, and try again.” And in the meantime, he says, the cooking and cleaning has served to keep him busy: “I’m still doing something—it’s just stuff around the home instead of outside the home.”