Gender equality is not etched in stone, as highlighted by the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade in the United States. Political decisions can be reversed, economic gaps remain, and social inequalities are still evident across the globe. For these reasons, UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls has still not been met.
Gender inequalities continue in Canada’s economic and social sectors. Sharla Alegria, assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s sociology department and Jacqueline Neapole, the executive director of the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (CRIAW), believe that interconnected racial and gender biases result in unequal pay and economic advancement.
“While we have seen changes in the labour market and access to opportunities, we have not seen big changes in how families organize their intimate lives in the last 30 years”, Alegria says. “The inequalities that come from a division of household labour are still with us”.
Indeed, there has been an increase in work flexibility, mainly through the COVID-19 pandemic and necessary shifts to online and hybrid workspaces. However, research shows that women take more responsibilities at home while men put more time into paid employment, according to Alegria.
“Even though we are working towards minimizing stigmas, we still have to factor in structural limitations, personal choices and ongoing biases”, Alegria says.
There is also additional flexibility for employers to hire more contract and contingent workers to whom they have no obligation to provide work protections and benefits, including healthcare and retirement funds. This endangers workers, especially women, who constitute the majority of the field.
According to a 2011 commission by the Law Commission of Ontario, women, racial minorities and newly arrived immigrants are more likely to work in temporary positions. For example, in 2008, in Ontario, 43 per cent of women of colour held ‘precarious’ jobs. The corresponding figure for men was just 28 per cent.
“There are more women and immigrant workers who do not have access to the traditional and secure labour market”, Alegria explains. In addition, the de-credentialization of immigrant workers’ education has a significant impact, so immigrant women are particularly affected.
“When looking at reducing labour costs, the quiet part is to cut workers’ pay”, Alegria says. “And there are cross currents with these other trends about reducing labour costs that particularly impact women, people of colour and immigrant workers”.
Neapole agrees. As the executive director of CRIAW, she focuses on social justice for all women. CRIAW researches and documents the social and economic situation of women in Canada.
“Some persisting inequalities include the undervaluing and underpaying of jobs that are women-dominated positions and sectors”, Neapole says. “The care sector is one of the most undervalued and underpaid sectors, and the workers are mostly women, particularly racialized women. Yet, they are some of the most essential positions in Canada”.
According to Neapole, one reason for undervaluing paid care work is the expectation for women to do care work. “We see this in our research, this connection between expectation to do unpaid care work and the devaluing of care work when it is paid”, she says.
Since women often carry the most significant care burdens in unpaid domestic work, this expectation bleeds into the paid sector, such as in long-term care and nursing. Gender inequality is evident in the precarious working conditions, few benefits, low wages and limited job security.
“The pandemic laid this bare—how the burden of that unpaid care work falls on women”, says Neapole. Women often shoulder the greatest burden, from volunteering in the neighbourhood to domestic chores to caring for family members.
Alegria adds that women in high-paying fields also face a wage gap due to the ‘motherhood penalty, where women experience a pay penalty attributed partly to slower work but which is primarily indicative of gender bias.
“The motherhood penalty is the largest for women among the highest earners”, Alegria says. “They are in jobs where experience matters, and when they have kids and take a break from the labour market, their experience gain slows down, eventually becoming a pay gap”.
“But it should not be about decreasing the time gap”, Alegria says. “We could think about increasing men’s time to participate with their families and reorganize how we think about the relationship between work and non-work time. We need to ensure that we have high-quality, low-cost childcare, too”.
While Neapole believes there have been improvements in Canada, for example, the federal government’s commitment to a national childcare system, she says more consistent action is needed.
“There must be sustained and long-term investments to achieve equality for women”, she says. “It is not something that can be fixed in one government’s mandate. It is going to take time to change”.
Neapole adds that women’s organizations need continuous funding instead of short-term, project-based financial support. “Continuing to fund national women’s organizations, representing diverse women, and doing different types of work are important if we want to have sustained positive change for women in Canada”.
“We need long-term and persistent support, so we do not have rights rolled back. It is not always as concrete as people think. If we do not keep working on equality, as seen in the US, it can be dismantled”.
Edited by Ali Shahrukh Pracha