Want to start an argument? Ask friends and acquaintances for their thoughts on the gender gap in pay in Canada, and watch how many of them argue that it just doesn't exist. However, data from several sources have shown, over and over again, that there is a real gap between what men earn and what women earn for comparable work -- and further, that even as women are increasingly outnumbering men in post-secondary education and life expectancy, that gap is not shrinking.
A study released this week by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that while Canada ranks 12th in the world for equality between the sexes in the areas of politics, education, health, and the economy, we're not getting any closer to true gender parity. Over the past two decades, this country's gender gap score has risen just 2.3 per cent, which means that we should have that divide closed up completely by...2240. Woo?
Pay-gap detractors will argue that any differences that exist between what men make and what women make are just a matter of personal choice. It is true that all families make different choices; I include my own in that, and truly respect every family's decision to make the calls that are right for them. But it remains that while we have made so much progress towards equality between the sexes in education and health care, we still have this divide when it comes to economic equality. If we're going to have a real conversation about that, we have to acknowledge the factors that drive the choices we make.
I would assume that some kind of work-life balance -- which has apparently come to mean simply wanting to have a life outside of simply working -- is desirable for us all. If you have children -- or, increasingly, elderly relatives that you have to care for, or both -- it's non-negotiable. Every family has to make choices about childcare, elder care, career advancement, and simply keeping the household running. And for 70 per cent of women with children younger than six years old, that means working. Those women still do twice as much of the unpaid work of cleaning and childcare. Why is it that the sacrifices that often come with balancing competing priorities are often assumed to fall on the shoulders of women?
Witness the reaction when Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer returned to full-time work two weeks after giving birth. Do you remember reading anything about whether or not Yahoo's previous CEO, Scott Thompson, has any children, and if so, when he went back to work after their births? If he took time off later to help with childcare? If he left the office early to attend Little League games or put the kids to bed? Of course not, because there is no expectation that he would -- and there is an assumption that he has a wife who is, of course, doing those things for him.
Those assumptions harm men -- they want to be involved parents too. I know many men who have decided, with their partners, to take extended time off work to be the primary caretaker at home, and have done it happily and with skill and enthusiasm. But not every employer is cooperative with or understanding of that choice, and that's in a country where we have legal protections for employees who need time off work to care for immediate family members. Many other employers are unsympathetic to a desire for flexibility in working hours or locations -- including Yahoo, which recently decided that employees could no longer telecommute.
This expectation that women are holding down the home fort also, of course, harms women themselves. The expectation that they'll sacrifice career potential in order to make family life work falls largely on them. In the days of Mad Men, husbands could pursue their careers single mindedly because wives were at home caring for the children, and were available to plan things like hosting the boss for a dinner party. Today, many families have a husband and wife who both work outside the home -- or have two husbands, or two wives, or aren't part of a couple at all. When something has to give, many people still hold the assumption that it's the woman who'll be giving it.
The gender gap for pay also harms the economy. Wives outearn their husbands in 22 per cent of marriages, according to data published by Pew Research Center in 2010, and a quarter of couples have incomes that are basically the same. What happens when one half of those couples sees her earning potential stagnate? That affects every financial decision her family makes -- and research has shown that women make most of the purchasing decisions for their families. This is particularly critical as more and more people are in precarious work situations, where they are freelance or working on contracts and lack benefits like pensions and health insurance.
And while many argue that women accept a decrease in earning potential when they choose to have children, the pay gaps are the widest later in life. The income gap starts really increasing when both sexes are in their 30s, which is also when many people begin having children -- but women's incomes peak in their 50s, then start to decline throughout the rest of their earning lives, long after their potential childbearing years are finished. This could be disastrous for many women and their families, as they'll be building retirement savings and taking on increasing health costs on less and less income.
But all is not rosy for those of us who happen to have male partners who make less than we do, either. A new paper by Marianne Bertrand, Emir Kamenica, and Jessica Pan outlined the difficulties faced by the young women who increasingly find themselves taking home a higher salary than their husbands -- and the self-sabotage they'll engage in. Bertrand, Kamenica, and Pan found that women with the potential to earn more than their husbands are more likely to quit their jobs than those in otherwise-comparable families, or to underuse their earning potential. That might sound crazy, but those same women are also more likely to be in troubled marriages or end up divorced. For many years, I earned more than my husband, and if I had a dollar for every time I was asked if that bothered him or got called his "sugar mama"...well, then I'd have been making even more than he did, and apparently would have been even more of a bother.
I don't have a solution for all of this; I wish I did. I am still trying to figure these things out for my own family, and I know it's not easy. Policy Alternatives offers some suggestions, including reintroducing a mandate to fund research and advocacy to Status of Women Canada (it was nixed by the federal government in 2006) and better funding for the organizations that research these very issues. I'd be thrilled to see those changes made, but I am sadly not expecting it to happen any time soon.
What we can do is start making changes in our own homes: throw out the old, outdated gender expectations, let go of the resentment about who brings in what, and make decisions based not on what your parents or employers are telling you do based on your sex, but on what is truly the best thing for you and the people who matter to you the most.