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The underrepresentation of women in the workplace

career-interruptedI just read an interesting report about women in the workplace. It had similar findings as the articles I reviewed recently in my last post of the series. Essentially, the report suggests that women remain underrepresented relative to their male counterparts, even though they form a highly educated and skilled labour pool in the market. Given the skills shortage that is expected to occur in the near future due to mass retirements of senior baby boomer workers, this is an unsettling finding. But what are the reasons for this, according to the report?

The report refers to two “worrisome” trends. Firstly, the market may be experiencing a topping out of female participation for workers in the age group of 25–44 years. In the past five to seven years, participation has flatlined in this age cohort. In light of the fact that this age period is crucial in career building in terms of acquiring skills, knowledge and professional contacts, this is the core group of workers that form the pool from which higher level decision-making and management positions are selected.

Secondly, the gender wage gap that is largely tied to motherhood is causing women in this age group to incur larger wage penalties unrelated to their skills, education and experience. It was found that the more children a woman has, the wider the gap becomes. Also, the more frequent the workforce exits to have children, the more the worker suffers a higher wage penalty. The report notes that evidence strongly suggests that “labour force intermittency” is the main culprit.

The report provided some tips for female employees. Female employees may wish to accumulate more work experience prior to taking a maternity leave, since this leads to less of a financial penalty; this is true regardless of the length of time out of the market during a leave. Moreover, female employees may want to consider remaining with the same employer during an exit and reentry in the market for childbearing reasons, as this also leads to a lower wage penalty.

Similarly, employers can learn some things from the report as well. For example, it is important for employers to become more flexible when dealing with female employees. Employers can provide flexible work options to attract and retain talented female workers who take a maternity leave.

Further, the study suggests that employers should recognize that women prefer positions of greater responsibilities, even when those positions bring with them longer hours. It is a matter of working with and supporting these female workers, instead of assuming that workforce attachment has plummeted just because they took a maternity leave.

What do you think? Do you agree with some of the tips made in the report?

Christina Catenacci
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Editor

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Christina Catenacci

Christina Catenacci, BA, LLB, LLM, was called to the Ontario Bar in 2002 and has since been a member of the Ontario Bar Association. Christina worked as an editor with First Reference between February 2005 and August 2015, working on publications including The Human Resources Advisor (Ontario, Western and Atlantic editions), HRinfodesk discussing topics in Labour and Employment Law. Christina has decided to pursue a PhD at the University of Western Ontario beginning in the fall of 2015. Read more
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5 thoughts on “The underrepresentation of women in the workplace
  • Thanks for your comments, Sandra and Adam. That is an interesting question…based on the findings of the studies, I would imagine that the answer to this question is “no”, because the reason this is occurring has to do with assumptions regarding motherhood. That said, I’d be interested to hear from a male employee who took a leave of absence and subsequently returned to the office…


  • Adam Gorley says:

    I think Sandra has got the right question: Does a man returning from an absence (to the same employer/job) suffer similar wage penalties as a woman?

  • Sandra says:

    I wonder if a man that took a leave of absence (for whatever reason, not parental leave) for a year would face the same wage penalties. My guess is, he will not, and that’s completely unfair.

  • Yosie,

    Thanks for your comment. This issue is definitely a personal one for me as well; I too, believe that women are forced to make certain choices or else their careers may be in jeopardy (men simply do not have these concerns). What bothers me the most is that a huge number of people make a very flawed assumption – they assume that once a woman has children, her workforce attachment instantly disappears. All that she worked for in school and during her career is suddenly insignificant, meaningless, and unimportant. Along the same lines, women who choose to not have children are also fit into this stereotype since they, too, may at any moment become mothers who will abandon all workforce attachment. Thus, operating under this stereotype, it only makes sense that there is no point in taking women seriously in terms of raises, promotions, mentoring, etcetera. There appears to be very few ways to convince people that highly educated females can be both career focused and nurturing mothers – using this draconian way of thinking, balance is not possible.

    The study recommended that women delay having children and establish a career before they become mothers. This may help in terms of wage penalties and so on. The problem with this strategy is, I have seen firsthand many women work their way up the corporate ladder in male dominated professions, thinking that now they can safely have children, only to be terminated once they take a maternity leave, or demoted, or kicked out of their department so they have to start over from scratch in another department. Ultimately, women face choices during their entire careers, and not just at the beginning because of how the corporate world views women and operates based on flawed assumptions and stereotypes.

    I wish things could improve – it is the year 2010! I share your frustration completely! Stay tuned to Part IV in the Women in the Workplace series…


  • Yosie Saint-Cyr says:

    Thanks Christina for this overview on the latest report on this very important topic. It does anger me so that our gender is still an issue on how far we climb the corporate ladder, or how we are paid compared to our male counterparts.

    There are more women graduating now and acquiring degrees than men but still they are saying we need more education, experience and skills before we do what comes naturally… have children!

    I wish we did not have to choose between our careers or motherhood!