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The Gender Income Gap

Publié le 1 mai, 2008 | Pas de commentaires

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The gender income gap in Canada is wide and persistent. While gender-role attitudes in society have become more egalitarian, and while more women than ever before are pursuing advanced degrees and joining the workforce, the disparity between men’s and women’s income has remained unchanged over the past decade. Why is this the case?

160/365 to-ing and fro-ing
Hannah Webster, 160/365 to-ing and fro-ing, 2007
Certains droits réservés.

Two recent studies on gender income inequality, both widely discussed in the Canadian press, offer conflicting accounts of current trends. A Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) report released on March 7, 2008, showed a persistent–and slightly widening–income gap between men and women in Canada, and argued for labour market and welfare state reforms to mitigate this gap1. As if in response, the Globe and Mail ran an article in early April presenting academic research showing a correlation between egalitarian gender-role attitudes held among high-income earners in particular, and a more equitable distribution of income and unpaid domestic work between spouses2. This empirical dissonance raises two closely related questions. First, where is Canadian society headed in terms of narrowing the gender income gap? Second, what are the most important factors contributing to the gap? Will women narrow the income gap with their male counterparts as egalitarian gender-role attitudes become more prevalent, or is the subordination of women in the labour market being reproduced at a structural level in Canadian society?

Figures from the 2006 Canadian census have been used to support both perspectives. Facts do not speak for themselves, however, and the Canadian census does not in any event collect all of the pertinent facts3. Clear patterns nevertheless emerge. It is evident from census data that the income gap in Canada is large and it is not going away. Women working full-time in year-round employment currently earn 70.5 percent of male incomes. While this is slightly down from 72 percent in 1995, it is close to the average for the intervening ten-year period4. By this measure, the slow, seemingly inexorable tendency towards income parity of the post-war period has stalled. Moreover, the measure of gender inequality ranks Canada near the bottom of OECD countries5.

That this should be the case is both troubling and counterintuitive. We assume in a liberal society that reward follows individual effort, and we believe that it should do so regardless of the circumstances of birth. The exchange of equal values in the marketplace is mirrored in equal rights protection under the laws. People are paid according to the investments they have made in their skills and education, as well as their productivity at work; discrimination on the basis of gender, while still a reality in the workplace, is proscribed by law6.

The income gap is counterintuitive, given these assumptions, because it has remained unchanged during a period in which women have done what they were supposed to do to eliminate it. The CLC report “Working Women: Still a Long Way from Equality” highlights this disconnect. Women are now more likely than men to earn postsecondary degrees, a standard measure of ‘human capital’ that is supposed to find its reward on the labour market. They are joining the paid labour force in greater numbers, and they are having fewer children, and taking less time off work to care for them. Yet women who delayed childbirth to pursue university degrees and start careers now earn 68 percent of the income earned by their male counterparts. Ten years ago, they earned 75 percent as much7. This outcome confounds mainstream labour market economics.

The academic study cited in the Globe and Mail article is representative of the mainstream approach. In the 2007 article “Gender-Role Attitudes and Earnings: A Multinational Study of Married Women and Men,” published in the journal Sex Roles, Lisa Stickney and Alison Konrad examine the impact of gender-role attitudes on earnings of married individuals. They find a significant correlation between egalitarian values held by married individuals–for example, men should share housework and childcare responsibilities, both men and women should contribute equally to the financial well-being of the household–and higher incomes for married women8. According to the authors, this rather unsurprising result is due to the greater effort expended by married women at work when they are less likely to be solely responsible for domestic chores and childcare. The findings are in line with a theory propounded in the mid-1980s by neo-classical sociologist Gary Becker, who argued that married women earn lower salaries than similarly qualified men because they expend less effort at work in order to ‘conserve’ effort for domestic responsibilities9. The free market rewards effort fairly, and discrimination is incidental. Married women simply put less effort into their work than men do given the gendered distribution of paid employment and unpaid domestic labour within families.

Space is lacking here to rehearse the criticisms that have been made of Becker’s theory; I will simply note that this argument still enjoys academic respectability in mainstream economics. The conclusions that Stickney and Konrad draw from their findings are more germane to the present discussion. The authors use Becker’s theory to argue a causal relationship underlying the observed correlation between egalitarian attitudes and higher female income. If this causal relation is valid then the implication is that “changes in [gender-role] beliefs are likely to result in material reductions in gender inequality in our society”10. This non-controversial statement accords with the commonsense view and presents an element of truth: traditional gender-role attitudes do maintain a hold over Canadian society, and these attitudes are likely to constrain the earning potential of women.

The argument’s inadequacy becomes apparent, however, in light of the data collected by the census and reported by the CLC: gender roles are clearly in a state of flux when men’s and women’s labour market participation rates approach parity, and yet women still earn less than men even when education and full-time employment status are taken into account. The argument’s spuriousness lies at a deeper, methodological level. Stickney and Konrad examine individual attitudes rather than behaviours. Behaviours are not only shaped by attitudes, but also, and perhaps more fundamentally, by external opportunities and constraints. Families might express attitudes that articulate beliefs in gender equality while being constrained by labour market and state institutions to behave in contradictory ways.

Most families in Canada are systematically constrained by existing institutions to behave in ways that reproduce gender inequality. Women are penalized by labour market institutions for the fact that they have the biological ability to give birth. Women are forced to take a minimum of 6 months off from paid employment per child. Maternity pay is often inadequate. Women lose pension contributions and seniority the longer they are forced to take time off work. Their career development is interrupted and damaged when compared to their male counterparts’. Since women continue to be the primary child caregivers, they take more time off work than men do, are twice as likely to work part-time, and find themselves unable to work the long hours required in many high-paying professions such as law and financial services, which are not known to accommodate the needs of women with young children. All of this perpetuates Canada’s gender income gap.

According to anthropologist Eleanor Leacock: “The ability to bear children has led in our society not to respect but to women’s oppressed status”11. In the absence of a national universal daycare system, reforms to Employment Insurance and Canada Pensions, and more flexible, family-oriented workplaces, Leacock’s statement is still valid today.


1. “Women still making less than men, report says,” Globe and Mail (March 7, 2008).
2. Galt, Virginia. “All in Family, All in the Workplace” Globe and Mail (April 4, 2008).
3. The census does not, for example, break postsecondary education qualification into fields. It also no longer calculates the monetary equivalent of unpaid domestic work, largely performed by women, as it did in 1995.
4. Figures compiled by author from the 2006 census, available at <www12.statscan.ca> accessed on April 13, 2008.
5. “Working Women: Still a Long Way from Equality” Canadian Labour Congress Report (March 6, 2008) accessed online at <www.canadianlabour.ca> on April 14, 2008.
6. It should be noted that Canada still does not have proactive antidiscrimination legislation. Rather than forcing employers to comply with Section 7 of the Charter of Human Rights, current laws require individual women and groups to file lawsuits alleging discrimination. This is a far more expensive and less effective approach to correcting discriminatory hiring and promotion practices.
7. “Working Women”, op cit.
8. Stickney, Lisa and Alison Konrad. “Gender-Role and Earnings: A Multinational Study of Married Women and Men.” Sex Roles 57 (2007): 801.
9. Becker, Gary S. “Human Capital, Effort, and the Sexual Division of Labour.” Journal of Labor Economics 3.1 (1985): 33-58.
10. Stickney and Konrad, 801.
11. Leacock, Eleanor. “Introduction” in Friedrich Engels The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. New York: International Publishers (1972): 40.

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