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Questioning the results of best and worst places to be a woman report

workscitiestobewoman2The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) made national headlines last month when they released their “Best and Worst Places to be a Woman in Canada 2015” report. This provocative report ranks Canada’s 25 largest cities on the following five criteria: Economic Security, Education, Leadership, Health, and Personal Security.

Based on CCPA methodology, the cities of Victoria (BC), Gatineau (QC) and Quebec City (QC) topped the list. Sixth-placed London (ON) was the highest ranking city in Ontario. Cities in Quebec (with provincially-subsidized daycare and other generous family-friendly government policies) and others with high numbers of federal or provincial government workers did disproportionately well. This suggests that women lucky enough to receive government-granted salaries or benefits have a distinct advantage over those who do not.

The fact that Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo (KWC) ranked dead last, suggesting that the region is the worst place in Canada for women to live and work, was a surprising result for us at Clear Path, an HR firm primarily staffed by women and based in that region.

Our reaction is more than sour grapes. KCW enjoys employment level and wage levels that are “significantly higher” than the national average. The area has an abundance of educational opportunities with two local universities and a community college, has a higher life expectancy than both the national and provincial average, and enjoys a crime rate significantly below the national average. There is definitely room for improvement in the current level of female representation in municipal politics (though both Cambridge and Waterloo have had female mayors for approximately 60% of the past 40 years).

Considering all this, we wanted to take a deeper look at the report’s findings and the elements they used to create their rankings. As an HR firm, we also wanted to take a look at what it means to be the best (and worst) place for women and discover what business owners and HR managers can do to make their workplaces a positive environment for their female team members.

Here are some of our concerns and thoughts about the report’s findings:

Why focus on the variance between women and men rather than actual outcomes?

The report’s authors state they are focused “primarily on the gap between men and women, rather than their overall levels of well-being” in any of the five criteria. They did so “in order to measure the difference in access women and men have to the public goods available in their community, not the overall wealth of a community.” But such an approach leads to some pretty dubious results.

For example, London, with the second highest poverty level of all the 25 cities measured — along with employment levels and wage levels below the national average — is ranked second highest for economic security for women due to the fact that men are even worse off in that city [with 20% of women vs. 22% of men living below the Low Income Measure].

An HR perspective: The best way to improve the economic security of women in any community is to increase the number of people earning good incomes in permanent positions at companies that are thriving. Recent high profile company closures (Kellogg’s, Heinz, Target, Caterpillar) along with significant downsizing and restructuring (Blackberry) have been devastating to many communities and resulted in economic insecurity for both men and women. Gaining an enterprise-wide commitment to innovation and profitability while balancing the needs of your workforce is key.

Wage gap should be a bigger focus

The wage disparity between women and men across Canada is a serious issue that deserves more attention. Recent studies reveal Canada is falling behind other western countries on this measure and a recent high profile case at McMaster University revealed that female faculty made an average of $3,500 less than their male counterparts even after seniority, tenure, faculty and age were taken into account.

The fact that women working full-time in KCW earn only 69% of men’s incomes is disturbing and falls well below the provincial average of 74%. Some of that gap may be explained by high numbers of people employed in the male-dominated technology industry. Other cities with large high-paying, male-dominated sectors like construction and oil & gas face similar wage gaps. Efforts to get more women into these sectors may eventually close the wage gap, but are currently not making much of a dent.

The report admits that high-ranking places like London and Victoria have a lower wage gap due to the fact that men’s wages are below average, not necessarily because women are earning equitable wages.

It is worth noting that cities with high numbers of public sector workers (such as Gatineau, Ottawa, Quebec City, Victoria) have the lowest wage gaps. In particular, women in Ottawa and Gatineau earn 87% of what men earn. The public sector unions have made tremendous efforts to create transparent wage setting practices and achieve gender equality during the promotion process.

An HR perspective: It may not be economically feasible for most private sector organizations to match the wage levels and significant benefits/perks associated with public sector positions, but why not model their wage setting and equity practices?  Being more transparent and increasing diversity in senior management positions will have a positive impact for all – but particularly for your female team members.

Health rankings should be based on better data

Rankings in the Health category are disproportionately based upon self-reported Stats Canada survey data rather than measurable factors like life expectancy or even access to a family physician. Again, the rankings emphasize the variance between women’s and men’s responses on two questions: “Would you rate your health as very good or excellent?” and “Do you perceive that you have a high level of stress in your life?”

Those who work with statistics argue that self-reporting, subjective data often leads to widely unreliable results and that looking at small areas of geography (where the sample size might be quite small) rather than national/provincial results will lead to varying accuracy.

It is perhaps unsurprising that women are more likely to rate themselves as having a high level of stress than men (23.7% vs. 22.3% nationally). This is one area where the city of Gatineau did poorly, with 31% of women vs. 15% of men rating themselves as highly stressed. KCW came in at 25% for women vs. 18% for men. It may be interesting to discover why there are such widely varying results, but the current lack of quality data makes that impossible.

An HR perspective: To truly encourage healthy outcomes for women, workplaces should take explicit steps to promote employee wellness, such as subsidizing gym memberships, hosting wellness sessions on different health-related topics, creating ergonomic workplaces, offering a sufficient paid sick days, and ensuring access to EAP programs. To tackle some of the specific stress-inducing factors that impact women, investigate family-friendly options like flexible work hours and on-site daycare if possible.

Education rankings too focused on trades training

Even though KCW benefits from multiple local post-secondary institutions, there is less than a 1% gap in the percentage of women and men who have a university degree, and that female college graduates outpace their male counterparts 21% to 17%, KCW still ranked second last in the Education category.

This poor showing seems to be primarily due to the fact that men are more likely to have completed trades training or an apprenticeship (10% of men vs. 4% of women). It is encouraging to see that Conestoga College and local high schools are making a concerted effort to get women into the trades, but achieving parity in the near future may be a challenge. Ranking such a pro-education community so poorly based on this narrow measure seems inaccurate.

An HR perspective: Creating an environment of constant learning for your employees is critical for today’s successful businesses. Helping employees develop new skills, including subsidizing the cost of tuition for those willing to take additional courses. Encouraging your female employees to expand their skill sets and become qualified for positions in management or typically male-dominated fields (like technology, construction, oil & gas) will truly make your business a great place for women to work.

Conclusion

We applaud any effort to examine the successes and challenges of women in their personal and professional lives. But next year we encourage the report’s authors to review the criteria they used to determine their rankings, with a larger focus on true economic security, safety and health outcomes.

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Clear Path Employer Services

Certified HR consultants and medical professionals at Clear Path Employer Services
Clear Path Employer Services is a team of certified HR consultants and medical professionals dedicated to resolving the human resources and claims management challenges facing businesses across Ontario. The company was founded in 2003 by Anna Aceto-Guerin, a Certified Human Resources Professional (CHRP) specializing in WSIB claims management and NEER cost containment, with a focus on return-to-work programs and acquiring SIEF cost relief for employers. Read more
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