09/16/2015 12:57 EDT | Updated 09/16/2016 05:12 EDT

Globe And Mail Debate: Will Leaders Discuss Women In The Workforce?

The leaders have sporadically delved into some of the policy issues that affect Canadian working women during this campaign.


OTTAWA — Three men will have a vigorous discussion on the Canadian economy during this week's televised leader's debate — but will women in the workforce, one of the key drivers of growth, make its way on to the agenda?

In this year's British election, the parties battled over whose platform was friendlier for working women. Prime Minister David Cameron recently lived up to his campaign promises to double free child care for three and four-year-olds to 30 hours per week, and to tackle the gender pay gap by forcing companies to reveal how they pay workers.

"We believe that will encourage women back into the workforce," said Cameron, who has taken to tweeting government statistics on female participation.

In the United States, the third-party "Make it Work" campaign is trying to make paid leave, affordable child care and equal pay part of the election campaign narrative, pledging "only to support candidates who champion solutions for working people."

Women's participation in the labour force has been emphasized as an important economic driver by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the United Nations, the OECD and at home by Canadian economists. At last year's G20 summit, the leaders agreed to reduce the gap in participation rates between men and women by 25 per cent by 2025.

"In a world in search of growth, women will help find it, if they face a level playing field," IMF managing director Christine Lagarde wrote earlier this year.

But rates of female participation in the Canadian labour force have been declining, and Statistics Canada said that includes women between 40-49 — in their prime working years.

Canadian party leaders have sporadically delved into some of the policy issues that affect Canadian working women during this campaign.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has made the most direct pitch on increasing women's participation in the labour force. The New Democrats have promised a $15-per-day national child-care plan.

"This isn't just good for families...it's also good for the economy," Mulcair said last month.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has promised more flexibility for parents taking parental leave and using the employment insurance compassionate care benefit. On child care, the Liberals are promising to give parents a larger monthly child-care cheque with no clawbacks, but haven't promised to create more spaces.

"My own personal commitment to a federal cabinet with gender parity will go a long way to demonstrating that Canada is serious about valuing and creating opportunities for the incredible contributions that women make to our economy and our country every single day," Trudeau said Wednesday in Calgary.

The Conservatives recently increased the amount paid monthly to parents with children under the universal child care benefit (UCCB), and raised the tax deduction limits for daycare expenses. The Conservatives also extended the compassionate care leave to six months, up from six weeks.

Some funding under Status of Women of Canada has also gone towards encouraging women to enter non-traditional trades.

But the government also introduced partial income splitting for families with children under 18. Some economists, and the parliamentary budget officer, have said income splitting works as a disincentive for the lower-paid spouse to enter the workforce.

"By saying that income splitting is a disincentive to women entering the workforce is a very gendered assumption," Conservative MP Michelle Rempel said Wednesday.

"It's a hugely gendered assumption that in all cases women are the lower income earner."

The Green party platform talks of the gender pay gap as "a black mark against Canada," and proposes tax breaks for employers who provide on-site child care for workers.

"This has the added benefit of far higher labour productivity as well as increasing precious time for parents and children," May said in a blog post.

Industries that are facing shortages of skilled workers are having the same policy discussions — how do they attract more women, particularly in non-traditional fields?

The Women in Supply Chain initiative, established by the Alberta-based Van Horne Institute, has been trying to encourage women to consider jobs in transportation, logistics, procurement and those interrelated fields. Recent reports have predicted the industry would see about 360,000 unfilled positions over the next five years.

Corrie Banks, president of Calgary-based Triskele Logistics, said that public transit and accessible child care are two barriers that she hears about. Often, industrial parks are in hard-to-reach areas of a city, or outside the city limits.

"There are stories of some of the women wanting to enter the sector who are taking their kids all the way across the city and going all the way back to work and they're on the bus for two hours with their kids both ways," said Banks.

There are different theories as to why fewer women are participating in the Canadian labour force in recent years, including discouraging effects of pay inequity.

TD Bank economist Brian DePratto wrote a report on the issue a year ago, pointing to three possible reasons: a drop in employment rates in traditionally female-dominated fields; increased immigration, with newcomers participating less in the labour force; and women having children later in life and not returning to the work force.

DePratto says high labour force participation rates — meaning people actively working or looking for work — is an indicator of a strong economy.

"The lower that is, that means you have— a group that's less engaged and obviously that seeps through to things like output — less workers means less hours worked, less overall prosperity at the individual level and the national level."

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