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Women in the workplace Part II: why is Canada lagging in wage gap ranking?

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I have been reading some interesting articles recently regarding women in the workplace. A recent report put Canada at number 20 in a global measure of equality between men and women. Canada was actually rated number 33 in the world on earned income gaps. Why is this still happening?

A Canadian study attributes the earned income gap to motherhood and workforce attitudes about motherhood. Women appear to face larger wage penalties that have nothing to do with their skills, education and experience. The report concluded, “Evidence strongly suggests that labour force intermittency is the main, yet multidimensional, culprit”.

Further, women with children face steep monetary penalties on the job. Women who left the workforce to have children apparently experienced “an unexplained, but persistent” three percent wage penalty per year of absence.

Though there were no significant differences in salaries for women without children, I’d argue from experience that this may not be the case. I have seen plenty of women face workplace discrimination just because there was a possibility that they might become mothers who would have to take a brief maternity leave; it was simply easier to avoid hiring, promoting, giving raises, keeping or mentoring them just in case they were planning on leaving soon to have children.

So it appears that this problem has to do with stereotypical attitudes of women in the workplace. These attitudes may be present across numerous industries and occupations. For instance, in politics, we see that Canada also lags with regard to the representation of women in its parliament. Only 22 percent of Canada’s members of Parliament are women. This number is similar for provincial and municipal politics as well.

It is quite bizarre that Canada’s representatives do not mirror the representation of the country as a whole, especially since it has been found that an increase in the number of women in Parliament would lead to different policy decisions, affecting issues that involve them such as childcare, violence against women, equal pay and government funding on research against breast cancer.

However, some women get turned off entering politics due to the lack of women present in politics, the media’s depiction of women in politics, concerns about finding a balance between work and family life, and the political atmosphere where some believe that “men play silly games”.

This is too bad, as it has been found that group problem-solving and creativity actually improve when there are women on the team. In fact, it has been found that mental diversity in a team or group can provide up to 66 percent more effectiveness compared to random groups. What’s more, social sensitivity increases in diverse teams. Why then should women be excluded or shut out of important teams that resolve political issues?

This dilemma is also occurring in the financial world. The news headline, “Endless opportunities for women in financial markets, but few takers” sums up the issue very nicely in my opinion. Obviously, there are reasons that women are dissuaded from entering certain fields, and it seems the reasons have little to do with ability or education.

In the past 10 years, 141,000 women, or 2.6 percent of female workers in finance, left the industry in the United States, and the numbers of men grew by 389,000, or 9.6 percent. This happened even though more women than men entered the workforce. These trends also appear to be happening in Canada.

Those numbers in the United States were compiled when times were good; however, women in senior executive roles in all industries were three times more likely than men to lose their jobs in the recession.

In fact, although Canada’s banks consistently increased the proportion of women being hired in other roles, this was not the case in terms of capital markets (investment trading and advising). There were just too many barriers for women seeking out opportunities and advancing, including:

  • Gender stereotyping — women are still excluded from informal networks where relationships are built
  • Initial discouragement — women are not encouraged to get into financial market roles in the first place
  • Lack of career education for women in finance — there are not many classes in universities that give overviews of the spectrum of capital market functions and what careers might be available
  • There is a lack of recognition and mentorship — there are few women who have reached senior positions who can act (or who want to act) as role models, supporters and mentors
  • Workplace attitudes regarding the inappropriateness of women in finance — investment work is believed to be exhausting with long hours, and this would interfere with the creation of a normal home life

So what is the response by women? They enter into more traditional roles or work in more supportive work settings. Many women enter the public sector in order to find supportive work environments and attitudes. Why do most women prefer this work environment? Some reasons include:

  • Positions in the public sector can offer more flexibility to take work home at night or leave the office to care for an ill child
  • Many executive positions can require less long-distance travel than at a large private-sector company
  • There are more women in management in government, making the workplace more welcoming
  • Supportive workplace attitudes are the norm
  • Work-life balance is valued

As one lawyer working in government put it, “I think we are fortunate in the attitudes that are in our workplace. … So if you do take a full maternity leave, people aren’t dumping on you or stealing your clients, and you come back and you’ve got your job and the opportunities are still there”.

I have seen a few female lawyers lose their position, seniority and their clients after returning from a maternity leave, I concur: it is much more preferable to, pursuant to employment standards and human rights legislation, have a supportive environment where you can trust that you will keep your job after a maternity leave.

Though the amount of work is similar to reach career goals in both environments, the quality of the work environment seems to be an important factor in this analysis.

In my experience, this has been the most important factor for me and it is the reason I work at a progressive publishing company that values flexibility; a decent and respectful work environment; a supportive workplace with more females than just one; a workplace free of discrimination and harassment; good quality work; the necessary resources and mentoring to succeed; opportunities such as telecommuting and flextime; challenging work that has meaning; and opportunity to develop a substantive specialty given the superior quality of work.

This is interesting. The success rate for women in leadership in government is now outstripping that of publicly traded corporations. Moreover, female CEOs are doing very well in government.

Apparently, women are attracted to positions in government because they like the idea of working in a job that has a broad impact on society and meaning beyond profits.

However, the drawback is public sector pay. Pay is clearly lower for executives in government compared to similar executives in private-sector companies. Many private-sector companies supplement executive salaries and bonuses with shares and stock options, which do not exist in the public sector.

Yet there are other benefits that are just as important as pay—a sense of purpose while performing a job that has meaning appears to be just as important.

Not surprisingly, many women have risen to the top jobs in government possibly because they are simply more willing to work more for less money.

This could be an issue: are women devaluing themselves when negotiating for a job or annual raises?

As I mentioned in my first post in this series, some suggest that women hinder themselves by not negotiating properly for their first salary and not asking for earned pay raises. This is because women have socially learned to conform to cultural standards to the point where they do not ask for what they deserve in the workplace.

This may be “Why the executive suite is the final frontier for women“.

Women are struggling to succeed as executives in the private sector, and the workplace culture seems to be a significant factor. Many women interviewed in the article felt as though they were being patronized when spoken to. This is hard to deal with on a regular basis.

The number of women occupying senior management positions in Canada’s biggest companies has remained the same in the past decade. Only 17 percent of corporate officers and 13 percent of directors at Canada’s top 500 private and public sector companies are female. The 2.8 percent gain since 2002 is not very impressive.

Women make up about 47 percent of Canada’s workforce. Why are there so few top or even middle managers in these companies?

It looks as though the majority of successful female professionals are stuck in middle-management.

Some suggest that Canada hesitates to promote female executives all the way to the top.

Compared to 32 in the US, only 21 of the top 1,000 Canadian public companies have female CEOs, but this needs qualification; many of these women are related to founders and nearly half preside over small businesses with annual revenues of less than 25 million dollars.

The cautious hesitation can be attributed to women’s:

  • Perceived lack of ambition by women to fight their way to the top rungs
  • Ineffectual mentoring
  • Inflexible work hours at the workplace
  • Rigid career hierarchies

Again, this is too bad. But increasingly, progressive companies aim to hire more women into top positions in order to affect change and spark creativity. Some of Canada’s more globally minded companies have been pushing the advancement of women for years, but progress is slow.

In light of the numerous barriers noted above, how does a female executive “make it” in these businesses?

Some who have made it to the top point to programs that specifically aim to support and encourage women in business, and progressive employers at Crown or foreign companies that are either more proactive about promoting women or view female leaders as promising catalysts for change.

What do you think? What can be done to encourage, promote and support women who aim to become top executives of companies?

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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