Outnumbered & outranked

In November 2015, newly minted Prime Minister Trudeau announced his decision to implement Cabinet gender equality with the sunny ways statement: “Because it’s 2015.” Many of us took some hope from this positive beginning; a hope that has diminished steadily over the five years since.

Now, it is 2021 and, as a new investigative series at the Globe and Mail led by Robyn Doolittle makes clear, gender and racial equality are sadly lacking in the public institutions of this country.

Many of you will remember Doolittle from her 2017 investigative series “Unfounded,” which exposed the failure of many of Canada’s police forces to properly investigate sexual assault reports. She brings the same incisive analysis to this series.  

The Power Gap

The data to support this series reflected workplaces in 2017 and 2018; two years before the pandemic that has erased many of the employment advancements women were beginning to make.

As a July 2020 RBC report noted, the early months of the pandemic delivered an “unprecedented blow” to women, knocking women’s participation in the paid labour force to its lowest rate in more than 30 years. In other words, the story told by Doolittle and her colleagues would be even worse if it were based on current data, and the longer the pandemic keeps us at home, the worse it will get.

In the words of economist and Atkinson Fellow Armine Yalnizyan:

“Women are juggling unpaid care work of young children, unpaid homeschooling for school-age kids, and their jobs. At some point, they are going to be losing traction in the pipelines for promotion. They might even lose their jobs. They might even voluntarily step back from paid work because they can’t juggle it all.”

The Power Gap focuses on public workforces: municipal and provincial governments, universities and publicly owned corporations, which are taxpayer funded or government owned. But, as Vandana Juneja, Executive Director of Catalyst Canada, well knows, the situation is no better and often worse in the private sector:

“[W]e have watched the glacial pace of progress for women and underrepresented groups for years. Along the way, the message from Corporate Canada has been fairly consistent: There’s no need for regulation, really – we’re on it. Except that most are not.”

Confirming her concerns is this news flash: in mid-January, Ontario’s Capital Markets Modernization Taskforce decided not to mandate specific diversity targets for companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Fewer than 10% of those companies have set targets for female executive officers.

Not far enough

As the series reminds us, it has been 60 years since the first pay equity legislation was passed in Canada. Fifty since sex discrimination in hiring, firing and promoting was banned by the law. Forty since it became illegal to fire a woman when she got pregnant. Thirty since women surpassed men among university graduates:

“And yet, men still dramatically outnumber, outrank and outearn women.”

The Power Gap looks at women’s earnings compared to men’s, but also examines who holds leadership and decision-making positions in the 237 workplaces it researched and finds that women’s under-representation is not just at the highest levels but also at many rungs below that. While workforces may see women and men represented more or less equally in entry-level positions, women start to disappear about one-third of the way to the top, at the supervisor, manager, director, professor and dean levels.

At the very highest level – the top one percent in terms of salary – just 27 percent of employees are women and, of those, a mere 11 percent are women of colour.

On every rung of the ladder

As the series notes, it’s at least as important to look at women in middle management. Nicole Fortin, an economist with the University of British Columbia, has analyzed salary disparities at different earning echelons and says that gender diversity:

“doesn’t work as well when it is confined to the higher echelons. It has to be more on the middle management.”

Women in entry level positions, in other words, will be more likely to think promotion is possible if they see women represented in positions all the way up the ladder, including on the next rung up to the one they presently occupy.

What’s law got to do with it?

Doolittle makes the point that, while Canada has the laws it needs to end gender discrimination in the workplace, those laws are not being properly enforced. She talked to 25 women who have filed formal complaints of gender discrimination because of sexual harassment, pay and promotion inequities, being fired for getting pregnant and being demoted for taking maternity leave.

The path of gender discrimination complaints is a complicated and slow one, damages are small and don’t include a cost award.

Gillian Hnatiw, a lawyer specializing in sexual harassment and sexual assault litigation, says:

“Because damages are so low, corporations and institutions can treat it as a cost of doing business. And because it’s a system that invites very little media attention, it’s a cost of doing business without public outcry.”

Because of the problems with the system, many women don’t file complaints, which means change doesn’t happen: there is simply no motivation for the employer to clean up its act.

We all need to get reading

This series is dense and, at times, overwhelming to read. At least to a non-statistician and lousy researcher like me, the data and charts alone can make for tough slogging. But there is a lot of important information in these articles that we should all know.

It’s easy to be complacent about the lot of women in Canada; after all, we have made a lot of headway in terms of formal equality and many of us are in much better situations than women elsewhere in the world.

However, better than elsewhere or better than before does not mean good enough, and this series will make that abundantly clear.

If for no other reason, read this because, well, because it is 2021.

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