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.
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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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).
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
Yalnizyan, the gap is growing. Governments have an important
role to play in redistributing wealth. They can do this
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
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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
(See Intro to Globalization
- 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,
This assistance does more for equality and justice if it’s implementation is led by those it impacts at a community level.
are the Causes?
What can governments do?
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