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Women's Economic Inequality

What can governments do to promote women's economic equality?

Women's economic inequality is deeply entrenched in our society and results from many different factors. However, there are a variety of strategies governments can use to protect women from poverty and to promote women's economic equality. Here are a few ideas you can pass on to your elected representatives:

For a review of which government is responsible for what in Canada, visit The role of government in the economy.

  1. Raise minimum wage
    Minimum wage rates in Canada range from $8.00 in British Colombia $10.25 in Ontario. Manitoba's minimum wage is $9.50 (October 2010 figures).1 In no province is minimum wage high enough to bring anyone out of poverty, not even if a person works full-time and has no dependants. (See Women and Minimum Wage for more.) Two-thirds of minimum wage earners are women so raising minimum wage rates to a level that allows a person to live with dignity would be an excellent first step in putting women on a more equal playing field.

  2. Implement a national child care program
    A national child care program is long overdue in Canada. Studies in European countries where such programs do exist show that access to quality, affordable childcare has a positive impact on women's participation in the paid labour force. Studies show that $2 of social benefits flow from every $1 invested in childcare. Because children are an important and necessary part of society - all of society benefits from them – it makes sense for individual families to receive societal support and not have to assume all responsibility for their care. (See Caring for Children.)

  3. Protect and expand social programs
    Many people find themselves in vulnerable economic situations at some point in their lives, be that a result of sickness, disability, divorce, death of a spouse, unemployment, old age, leaving an abusive relationship, or single parenthood. In fact, six in ten Canadians say they are living from paycheque to paycheque.2

    Women are especially at risk. They are paid less than men for their paid work and they tend to assume a much larger share of the unpaid caregiving responsibilities. Services like social assistance, disability benefits, Old Age Security (OAS), Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), subsidized housing, and Employment Insurance (EI) are essential to protecting women from poverty. Currently social assistance, disability, and old age payments are not enough to protect anyone from poverty. Cuts to EI have meant that far fewer people have access to these benefits (especially women who make up 2/3 of the part-time workforce in Canada), disability benefits show large gaps, and subsidized housing programs are inadequate to provide for all who need them.3

    Along with expanding social programs, governments have a role to play in implementing national standards for the delivery of programs. Many Canadians felt the loss when the Government of Canada eliminated the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP) along with the standards it set out. The Canadian government has an important role to play in creating new standards that ensure that all have what they need to live healthy and productive lives.

  4. Freeze tuition rates
    Tuition rates at universities across Canada have increased dramatically over the past decade. University-educated women have a much greater chance of higher earnings than do their non-university-educated counterparts.

    Although they represent a majority of students, women are more likely than men to be studying part-time. Part-time students are not eligible for Manitoba Student Aid and bursaries. The full-time eligibility requirement disproportionately affects women and is compounded by the lack of adequate child care services. The Canadian Federation of Students highlights that: “Women account for much of the increase in part-time studies at the university level over the past 30 years.” Of those women attending classes full-time, 62% take on student loans to be able to get this education.4 Tuition rates must stay the same or lower in order that university education be truly accessible to all.

  5. Create good jobs
    Governments get many messages from corporate lobby groups urging them to reduce the non-profit sector and privatize government services in the name of economic growth. These same groups argue that a certain amount of unemployment is necessary in order to maintain a competitive economy. But women and other vulnerable people will quickly be pushed out of an economy that is driven solely by the market. Governments have provided well-paying and secure jobs for many women. These jobs, and their creation, have also provided broader societal stability particularly in times of recession. Cutting social programs and the jobs that go with them not only leaves many women without the services they need to survive, it also gets rid of their jobs. In contrast, many jobs produced by the free market private sector are part-time, temporary, and low-paying, categories that when put together are labeled ‘precarious employment’ by labour economists. Since the 2008/09 recession, the government has boasted about the economy re-gaining all of the more than one million jobs that were lost. What they aren’t saying is that the bulk of those jobs are private sector, and many are precarious. As of September 2010 almost four in 10 Canadian jobs (37.6 per cent) were precarious.5 These jobs are here today, gone tomorrow. They provide unpredictable income streams even when you are working. The government can play a positive role in creating a society in which all have access to good jobs that benefit the whole community.
  6. Create progressive employment policies
    Governments can help provide good jobs outside of the public sector as well. Employment policies such as maternity benefits, benefits for part-time workers, and flexible schedules have helped women participate in the paid work force on their own terms. Governments can promote flexible workplaces by supporting these policies. Governments can also ensure pay equity - equal pay for work of equal value. Though the gap is lessening, women still earn less than men in Canada even in the same kind of work. (See The Wage Gap for more.) Unions too have been able to negotiate well-paying jobs for women; female unionized workers are much more likely to be paid closer to their male counterparts than non-unionized workers. Governments can help strengthen and promote unionization. Another progressive employment policy is affirmative action which attempts to correct inequalities of opportunity faced by certain groups of people such as women or people of colour (see Rose & Stacey's stories).

  7. Redistribute wealth through taxes
    The wealthiest 20% of households in Canada control 69% of the wealth. The next fifth control 20% of our net worth, while the poorest 60% of households possess only 11% of Canada's wealth. In fact, the lowest fifth are in debt several thousand dollars more than they own.6 According to economist Armine Yalnizyan, the gap is growing. Governments have an important role to play in redistributing wealth. They can do this through progressive taxation and closing tax loopholes that allow many rich individuals and corporations to avoid their fair share of taxes. The past decade has seen massive cuts to corporate income tax which have reduced governments' tax base and given them less to devote to social programming. Because women make up the majority of low-income people, a tax system that redistributes wealth would benefit them most.

    As Linda McQuaig outlines, redistribution of wealth through taxation has stopped working in Canada, shifting the benefits of economic growth from the middle class to the wealthy:

    All this can be captured vividly by imagining a "national income parade," a concept developed by Dutch statistician Jan Penn to measure income inequality. Everyone in the country marches in the parade, with heights determined by incomes, starting with the shortest (poorest) citizens and ending with the tallest (richest). What is striking is how low to the ground almost everyone in the parade is - except for a small number of giants at the end. If we compare the Canadian income parade of the late 1970s to today's parade, we find very little difference - not much has changed, that is - except at the very end. In the 1970s parade, the final marcher towers above his fellow citizens, measuring more than 200 feet tall, about one-sixth the height of the CN Tower. In today's parade, however, the head of the final marcher is no longer visible to marchers on the ground; even if they proceed to the CN Tower viewing deck, they're not even up to his knees. The massive upward flow of income has largely been invisible to the public, even though it may well amount to the most significant change in Canadian society in decades.7

    The Canadian government and other post-colonial governments also have a role to play in resolving Aboriginal land claims. Aboriginal peoples, especially Aboriginal women, make up a disproportionate number of the poor in Canada, a situation directly related to their displacement from their land as a result of colonization. (See Aboriginal Women and the Economy.)

    Internationally a Tobin Tax or Robin Hood Tax would force people to pay taxes on international financial transactions, redistributing global wealth and creating a fund for international development projects and environmental protection.

  8. Measure true economic growth
    Governments can use Alternative Economic Measures like the Genuine Progress Index (GPI) which measure growth not just in terms of monetary transactions but also community health and happiness and environmental protection. For example, time-use surveys have demonstrated the importance of women's unpaid caregiving work in creating government policy and programming. Governments can also support alternative economic structures developed by the community (see Community Economic Development) which strive to promote positive economic growth that benefits whole communities.

  9. Engage citizens
    Governments can involve citizens in many aspects of their work. Consultation is one way but there are other ways, for example, creating budgets. Many citizens already participate in budget creation through Alternative Budgets such as women's and gender budgets. Governments can take these budgets seriously and support the priorities that they favour.

  10. Use Gender-Based Analysis (GBA)
    Gender-based analysis or GBA is a tool that governments can use to ensure that, rather than exacerbate existing inequalities, government policies and programs serve to decrease these inequalities. GBA can be used at all steps in the process from review and design of programs to their introduction and legislation, and at all levels of government. GBA can help highlight such concerns as lighting and safety on university/college campuses, women's overrepresentation in part-time work, and women's health needs. GBA can also be used at an international level, for example, highlighting the often negative impact of free trade agreements on women.

  11. Make trade agreements fair
    Free trade agreements are well-known to exacerbate existing inequalities within and between countries. Women have been forced to bear the brunt of the restructuring that results from a globalized economy. They have lost unionized jobs in favour of non-standard employment, they have been forced to pick up the slack created by cuts to the public sector, and they have lost good jobs as a result of privatization. Within the global economy, free trade agreements have forced women in Canada to compete directly with women overseas, cheapening labour and reducing labour protections.
    Furthermore, as economist Jayati Ghosh explains, the perception of a net transfer of jobs going from the North to the South in the 2000’s is a myth. In the past decade industrial employment only minimally increased in the South, including China. The real face of free trade is seen when one looks at the negative shifts in employment caused by changes in technology, agricultural crises and loss of traditional forms of employment. Most new jobs are low-paying and precarious. National income distribution rates have worsened and those who benefit the most in the South are the already wealthy.8

  12. Forgive foreign debt
    Many of the world's poorest countries are saddled with unfair debts to the world's richest countries. International money-lending institutions like the World Bank use these debts to force poor countries to implement Structural Adjustment Programs or SAPs. SAPs encourage privatization of government services such as health care and education, creating havoc for vulnerable citizens. Women are particularly affected as they find ways to care for families and communities in dire situations. At the same time, SAPs encourage the creation of export-driven economies. As a result, women are forced into low-wage jobs created by foreign corporations and often made to work in sweatshop conditions. Women also lose control of land and therefore the ability to grow food for their families as they are pushed out by foreign-owned agribusinesses. (See Intro to Globalization for more.)

  13. Increase foreign aid and involvement
    Along with cancelling debt, increasing international assistance is yet another way that governments can redistribute global wealth and alleviate poverty for the world's most vulnerable citizens. Currently Canada's level of foreign aid lies far below the internationally-accepted level of 0.7%. Federal governments can also increase their foreign involvement by participating in UN programs and organizations that promote peace, ecologically sustainable development, and all human rights - economic, social, cultural, political, and civil.
    This assistance does more for equality and justice if it’s implementation is led by those it impacts at a community level.


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    "We can have democracy... or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of the few. We cannot have both."

    Louis Brandeis

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