Why do men make more money than women?

The pay equity gap has been researched and debated for decades, with little real progress to show for it. But the reckoning may finally be here.
(Photograph by Heshmat Saberi)

When Lee-Anne McFarlane was hired as a career development advisor with the Ontario Provincial Police in 2007, she took a job for about $30,000 less than the man who previously occupied the position. The discrepancy bothered her, but the salary was comfortable, the work was rewarding and she was glad to have the job. She bit her tongue.

It was only when McFarlane took a closer look at the now-ironically named “me too” arrangement—a measure initiated in 1990 to protect a group of predominantly male employees called commissioned officers—that she began wondering whether gender discrimination was at play. These men managed to negotiate a deal with the province that allowed them to reap the same salary bumps and benefits as the boots-on-the-ground officers. “I thought, why not ‘me too’ for all the female civilian managers and specialists?” McFarlane says.

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Since about 1990, civilian employees within the OPP—roughly 80 per cent of whom are women—have been paid less than the predominantly male uniformed officers doing the same job. The wage gap has gradually increased over the years—it’s now more than 42 per cent for some employees. The salary history of one civilian employee shows she’s been paid about $600,000 less over 17 years compared to a uniformed employee doing the same job. “We’re not talking about the front-line officers who are there to serve and protect,” McFarlane notes. “These are people making much more money doing similar or identical work.” For many positions in question, there are two job postings: one for civilian candidates and one for uniformed candidates. The salary depends on who gets the gig, but the role stays the same.

The average full-time salary for men and women in Canada (Photograph by Heshmat Saberi)

McFarlane rallied an association of civilian managers and specialists, collectively known as CAMS, to unpack what was happening. Since 2012, they’ve been quietly toiling away on evenings and weekends, building their case for being paid the same as uniformed managers doing the same work. A spokesperson for the OPP said because of the ongoing Human Rights Tribunal case, “we are not in a position to speak to the specifics of the complaint.”

READ: The key numbers that explain the wage gap

No matter how you crunch the numbers—regardless of sector, position or number of working hours—women continue to earn less than men. Overall in Canada, the earnings gap between men and women who work is about 31 per cent, according to the most recent Statistics Canada income numbers. Full-time working women, meanwhile, earn 26 per cent less than full-time working men. Comparing hourly wages, that number shrinks to 13 per cent, and after controlling for gender differences around factors like industry, occupation, education, job tenure, province of residence and union status, a mysterious eight per cent gap remains.

The reasons are many and complex. Academics have devoted decades to researching them; politicians have spent nearly as long pledging legislation to close the gap; businesswomen who’ve cracked the glass ceiling have spawned whole industries counselling other women to do the same. But since the second and third waves of feminism rolled in and ebbed, women’s wages have climbed a mere 10 per cent, adjusting for inflation. That snail’s-pace progress, according to Canadians polled in the latest Canadian Women’s Foundation survey, is the biggest barrier to gender equality.

Now, on the heels of the #MeToo movement, women have proclaimed “time’s up” on gendered inequity. And like it or not, for women to enjoy power and influence tantamount to men’s, they need the same kind of wealth. “The pay gap fosters an environment in which women have less economic security and less economic power,” says Toronto-based human rights lawyer Fay Faraday. “That makes them targets for those who want to take advantage of that power differential.”

But there are signs the tide is turning. Something shifted when Donald Trump—who has admitted to sexual assault—was elected U.S. president. As he threatened to take away hard-won women’s rights, women grew fearful they were losing their footing along the icy ascent to equality. Getting dangerously close to slipping backwards, they dug in their picks. Since Trump’s inauguration, tens of millions of women and their allies worldwide have marched for equality in real terms. They’ve demanded decades-old gender equity laws and policies be strengthened and enforced. They’ve come forward in droves, outing powerful men as sexual abusers. And they’ve gone public with their salaries—non-disclosure clauses be damned—to highlight how little they’re paid compared to male colleagues in similar positions.

The whole thing is now widely known as the Reckoning—a settling of accounts.

Tech sector These two operations specialists both worked for a tech startup in Toronto. They were on the same team and had the same amount of experience: one year. She was promoted to a supervisor role but left soon after for another job in tech with fairer compensation. (Photographs by Micah Bond and Marta Iwanek)
These two operations specialists both worked for a tech startup in Toronto. They were on the same team and had the same amount of experience: one year. She was promoted to a supervisor role but left soon after for another job in tech with fairer compensation. (Photographs by Micah Bond and Marta Iwanek)

For the women of CAMS, the movement helped validate their own cause. “It made us think we aren’t the only ones,” says McFarlane, now a manager in her department. “It reinforced that what we are doing is right. We have a case, and we’re not imagining things. We thought, someone’s listening to us,” she adds. “Someone cares about what we know and what’s happening.”

In her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, author Betty Friedan tapped into a “problem that has no name”—the lingering and widespread discontent women felt, despite gaining the right to vote and pursue university degrees and careers. Friedan and others struck a chord with women, helping to galvanize the women’s liberation movement. The Canadian federal government responded with the Royal Commission on the Status of Women report in 1970, setting in motion a slew of measures meant to fortify women’s power in the public sector.

“The atmosphere around this particular issue was very similar to what it is today,” says 76-year-old Martha Hynna, who was the secretary general of the Canadian Human Rights Commission from 1977 to 1982. In 1977, Canada passed the Human Rights Act, complete with an “equal pay for work of equal value” provision. The legislation, which set Canada apart as a world leader in pay equity, called on all federally regulated employers to evaluate workers based on skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions, and pay them accordingly. All provinces except Alberta have since followed the federal government’s lead with variations of pay equity, but no jurisdiction has seen the wage gap disappear. “At the time, I think it was quite daring for the government to agree to move that way,” says Hynna, suggesting the law—complex and expensive to implement—was unpopular among employers. And with no effective enforcement system, pay gaps are seldom rectified, if noticed at all.

Certainly, some things have changed for the better. Women are now far more qualified to enter and rise up in the workforce. According to Statistics Canada, women began outnumbering men on convocation stages in 1991. Since then, the proportion of university-educated women has more than doubled in Canada, from 14 per cent to over 35 per cent. Meanwhile, women’s participation in the labour market has rocketed to 82 per cent, up from 22 per cent in 1950 and 65 per cent in 1983. While the numbers are encouraging, it makes the persistent wage gap all the more outrageous.

Discussions on pay equity inevitably kick up a host of justifications for why the wage gap exists, including: women, more often than men, choose to work part-time; women sacrifice promotions by choosing to take time off to have children; women choose to avoid high-pressure jobs that demand long hours; and women choose not to negotiate their salaries or ask for promotions. These assessments were reflected in a survey Maclean’s and Insights West conducted to gauge public attitudes on the gender wage gap. Out of 875 working Canadians polled, only 11 per cent of women said they’ve tried negotiating a higher salary because of a perceived disparity with a male colleague (only 41 per cent of those who tried were successful). And more than half those polled believe maternity leave plays a major role in exacerbating wage inequality in Canada.

Human Resources These two human resources consultants have both worked for government in Halifax for a year. He has 12 years’ experience. She has seven and would need a 9.9 per cent raise each year for five years to receive an equivalent salary. (Photograph by Darren Calabrese)
These two human resources consultants have both worked for government in Halifax for a year. He has 12 years’ experience. She has seven and would need a 9.9 per cent raise each year for five years to receive an equivalent salary. (Photograph by Darren Calabrese)

More robust research shows there are kernels of truth in the arguments for the gap. However, to frame them as choices is a stretch, says Sarah Kaplan, director of the Institute for Gender and the Economy at University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “The thing I find very irritating about that ‘choice’ argument is that it doesn’t appreciate the social structure and opportunities that have led women to make those choices,” she says. What’s more, even if women and men are wilfully making different choices—in the truest sense of the word—that wouldn’t explain away the wage gap.

In one 2014 study, for instance, researchers asked more than a hundred STEM professors in the United States to consider a candidate for a lab manager position. Each prof reviewed one of two resumés, identical save for the name at the top of the page: one resumé was for Jennifer, the other for John. Despite being equally qualified, Jennifer was deemed less competent and was less likely to be hired. Those who would hire Jennifer offered her about $4,000 (13 per cent) less per year than John.

Kaplan often references the study to quash the notion that we operate in a meritocracy—a term she’d like stripped from the equity lexicon. “We like the idea of meritocracy because it means those who have risen to the top have done so because they’re the best,” says Kaplan. “If we start to say, ‘Wait, there are some structural reasons why women or people of colour have not gotten into leadership roles,’ for example, then the people at the top have to admit that maybe they didn’t get there because of hard work and merit alone—that they’re basically on an escalator going up, while women and people of colour are on the down escalator trying to go up.”

Women of colour, Indigenous women and those with disabilities are even further behind. According to 2006 census data, racialized women earn 62 cents on a man’s dollar (compared to white men, they earn just 55 cents). Indigenous women earn as little as 46 cents on the dollar. And comparing hourly wages between women with disabilities and all men’s wages, the wage gap is 75 per cent, compared to 13 per cent for women in general.

Baked into the wage gap numbers are more slippery factors like sexual harassment and overt discrimination. “Women, when they come into the workplace, face very gendered barriers to stay employed,” says Faraday. “We’ve seen that quite graphically with the #MeToo campaign, where women face distinct forms of gendered harassment and violence in the workplace that drives them out, and results in disrupted career paths. They lose opportunities for promotions, they lose opportunities to accrue seniority and experience. They may be driven out of careers altogether.”

There’s an imaginary line at the intersection of Riverside Drive and Golf Street that divides urban and rural Bathurst, N.B. On either side of the line, there’s a community mailbox, one which Amy Anderson feeds each day along her 90-km mail delivery route. Some days, when their schedules line up just right, Anderson will glimpse another carrier—wearing a similar Canada Post uniform to hers—filling mailboxes outside the Squire Green Golf & Country Club on the other side of the imaginary line. They smile, wave and go about their business. To passersby, the workers look like colleagues doing the same job. But their pay stubs tell two altogether different stories.

At Canada Post, a Crown corporation, rural and suburban mail carriers earn about 30 per cent less than urban employees. Regardless of geographic lines, though, the work is the same. The discrepancy hearkens back to a time when rural postal service work was considered women’s work—for wives and mothers seeking flexible employment to top up their husbands’ salaries. “Men couldn’t afford to do the job because it paid so little,” says Anderson, who was paid $10,000 for her first Canada Post contract in 1986. That money covered her work vehicle and fuel, leaving just $35 each week for living expenses. Over time, and at the risk of losing her job, she built the confidence to bid higher for contracts. Eventually, she was earning $9 an hour, not counting sick days, maternity leave and the one vacation she took 14 years into her career. Meanwhile, her Canada Post colleagues working in cities were enjoying all the trappings of stable, salaried work—vacation, health coverage, overtime pay and pensions—thanks to union representation, which wasn’t extended to rural and suburban workers until 2009.

“It’s very difficult work,” says Anderson, whose route is often treacherous in the winter. “And when you’re doing it for less pay than the person working next to you . . . ” She pauses to let out an exhausted sigh. “I was always really angry about that.”

Women still make up the majority of rural mail carriers—about 70 per cent—while men account for 70 per cent of workers in cities. To some extent, pay and working conditions have improved for Anderson and nearly 9,000 of her colleagues since rural and suburban mail carriers joined the union that represents city postal workers. But a gap in wages remains, to the tune of about $7 an hour, or 30 per cent, compared with their urban colleagues, who have a separate collective agreement. In the last round of contract negotiations, Canada Post used the term “competitive advantage” to refer to its rural workers. “They’re able to keep us as a cheaper workforce,” Anderson notes. “Is it because we’re women? Seems that way,” she says, a spark of defiance flashing through her conservative, soccer-mom exterior. “Well, we’re not accepting it any longer.”

After years of union pressure, Canada Post agreed to undergo a pay equity evaluation, which began in January. Anderson is confident in the union’s case. “The corporation has said there’s no gap,” she says. “Except when you look at our pay stubs at the end of the week, they’re not equal. It’s clearly not fair.”

In an email to Maclean’s, Canada Post spokesperson Jon Hamilton said: “Canada Post believes in providing our employees with fair and equal compensation. We agreed with the union on a process to study the matter further and have been working through that process. The process is ongoing with much constructive discussion and will soon include a third-party arbitrator to help bring resolution.”

Government relations These lobbyists both work in Ottawa. He has 12 years’ experience as a lobbyist and nine years in senior-level politics. The woman has 18 years’ experience as a lobbyist and 10 years in government relations. (Photograph by Jessica Deeks)
These lobbyists both work in Ottawa. He has 12 years’ experience as a lobbyist and nine years in senior-level politics. The woman
has 18 years’ experience as a lobbyist and 10 years in government relations. (Photograph by Jessica Deeks)

With the Canada Post and the OPP disputes, the case for pay equity appears straightforward. The employees in question are performing not just similar work, but the same work—in unionized positions and under government employers. What that says for private-sector employees, whose salaries are often kept private, is worrisome. And it inspires little hope that those doing different work of similar value can easily appeal for equal pay.

Midwives in Ontario offer one such example. The field is 99.9 per cent women, and the Association of Ontario Midwives (AOM) claims they have a gender wage gap of at least 40 per cent. That’s based on an assessment made by the provincial government in 1994, when midwifery became provincially regulated and funded. At the time, the province measured the value of midwives’ work against that of community clinic family physicians, and determined midwives should be paid about 91 per cent of what the comparable doctors earned. But since then, salaries for top-earning community clinic doctors have increased to about $200,000, while top-earning midwives earn $100,000. The AOM took the province to the Human Rights Tribunal over the pay inequity in 2016, and awaits a ruling.

According to Faraday, Ontario midwives are part of a sticky cultural phenomenon whereby women’s work is simply valued less than men’s. “We are in a labour market that is very deeply sex segregated,” she says. “Women and men largely do different work, often in different workplaces. And the more that work is associated with women, or stereotypically done by women, the lower it is paid.”

That tendency has played out for decades. In one notable study, researchers from Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania examined U.S. census data from 1950 to 2000 and found that as more women moved into historically male roles, pay for those jobs declined. Take recreation jobs, for instance: In the latter part of the 20th century, park and camp jobs shifted from being male- to female-dominated. During that same period, wages dropped 57 per cent, adjusting for inflation. Similarly, wages for designers and biologists dropped 37 per cent and 18 per cent respectively, as women increasingly outnumbered men in those fields. The reverse is also true: As men took over previously female-dominated jobs—like computer programming, for example—wages went up.

“It’s very hard to say why over the years women’s jobs would seem of less value than men’s jobs, but they have,” says Hynna, the sun streaming into her Ottawa apartment on a cold and cloudless January afternoon. “Part of it is that we were limited by the kinds of jobs we could have,” she says, though she considers herself an exception in that regard. Her father, a lawyer, MP and early feminist, raised her and her two sisters to do as much as, or more than, her brother. And they did—thanks largely to their socioeconomic status, Hynna notes: “I had a very privileged and exceptional childhood. I had a background where I was able to do what I wanted to do as a woman.” Hynna graduated from law school in 1965. Of the 300 graduates called to the bar that year, she was one of six women. “By the next year there were 12 women, by the next year there were 25. And now it’s more than 50 per cent,” she says. “I was in the front of a wave. I wasn’t out there by myself.”

Marvelling at the progress, Hynna wonders aloud how much the gender wage gap has narrowed since the days she helped draft legislation to close it. “Back then, the gap was way up around 30 per cent,” she says. “Surely it’s nowhere near that today.” When I tell her that, in fact, the gap has barely budged, the news lands like a punch to the gut. “Whomph. Still that high,” she says, her tone dropping in a brief moment of defeat. She pauses just long enough to muster a rallying cry. “Well then,” she says, “we should get angrier about this.”

Women are getting angrier. Many of those interviewed for this article expected the problem would have been solved by now—that as women became university educated and entered the workforce, particularly in high-paying sectors, the wage gap would spiral in on itself like a black hole.

After his election, Justin Trudeau defended his decision for gender parity in his cabinet with the viral response: “Because it’s 2015.” The optics were fantastic. The moment clinched Trudeau as the likable feminist champion (formerly an oxymoron) that women needed as the movement struggled to find its footing. (Days later, it emerged that Trudeau’s cabinet harboured a gender wage gap of its own. The government quickly rectified it.) Trudeau has since promised to strengthen pay equity legislation passed 40 years ago under his father’s government. If legislation comes through, every federally regulated employer will have to show that each employee’s salary carefully considers their skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions.

“[Existing laws] are certainly not stringent enough to compel employers to do pay-equity analysis proactively,” says Patty Hajdu, minister of employment, workforce development and labour. “This shouldn’t be something that’s only acted upon when there’s a complaint,” she adds. “Companies should make sure that when they are determining their compensation scale, they’re not somehow devaluing positions that have historically been filled by women.”

The government previously said it would introduce legislation in spring 2018. But in an interview with Maclean’s, Hajdu was reluctant to ballpark a date. “This is a really complex piece of legislation,” she says. “The process itself can be really laborious. And we wanted to make sure that we gave ourselves enough time to come up with a system that would reach the goal of the legislation, but also not result in protracted disputes between labour organizations and employers, or women’s groups and employers,” Hajdu added. “We want, at the end of the day, a system that is usable.”

“[Pay equity] has to be a federal initiative that has to apply all across the country,” says Michele Landsberg, a former Toronto Star columnist and a widely respected feminist and activist. “It has to be a bedrock of civilized life,” she adds. “I haven’t seen any inkling that [the federal government] intends to do that.” Indeed, there are doubts new legislation will be rubber-stamped. Compliance could be expensive for companies. And in the face of widespread opposition to small-business tax changes across Canada and minimum-wage hikes in Ontario, pay equity reform may well inspire hostility among stretched employers. Even Trudeau, the self-professed feminist leader, has been conspicuously quiet on pay equity.

McFarlane started her career in 1979 amid a flurry of public interest in and political promise for gender parity. She worked in male-dominated correction centres—where gender-based discrimination, both subtle and overt, is common-—but the women’s movement signalled that that culture would soon peter out. “Never would I have expected that toward the end of my career I would still be challenging what was, I thought, being challenged in 1979,” she says. “Call it affirmative action, pay equity, equal opportunity: all this language has been around for decades. Now it’s 2018, and a group of professional women had to go to the Human Rights Tribunal for recognition. So what’s changed?”

When she agreed to spearhead the CAMS pay equity case in 2012, many colleagues assumed she was on her way out. She was close to retirement, after all. But she’s vowed to keep working to see progress made for women in her field. “I’m not leaving until things settle down,” she says. “Until this matter is taken care of.” Somehow, she has hope that will happen soon. In an interview with Maclean’s following the tribunal hearing, McFarlane radiated optimism. “This didn’t happen overnight for us,” she said. “Yesterday, I have to tell you, was one of the hugest days in my life, professionally and personally and emotionally. And it’s bigger than money,” she adds—not to downplay the significance of the hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake for some colleagues. “It’s the recognition, it’s the value. It’s all those things you can’t put a price tag on.”

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