Water Cooler March 2016 : Gender equity: What’s your work worth?


by Melany Hallam

SURVEY QUESTION: Do traditional gender roles still exist in your workplace? Yes/No

Recently, I saw the movie Suffragette, about the experiences of a group of women in 1912 England who worked to win an equal opportunity to vote. I knew in theory what had happened back then, but seeing it dramatized in that way was eye-opening to say the least. Women today would never put up with that kind of bullying and society-wide paternalism — or would they?

In Canada, there is still a difference in pay between men and women who are hired to do the same jobs. This gap varies depending on age, education and occupation. For example, in 2010, Statistics Canada found wider gender pay differences for older workers. Women aged 25 to 34 earned 78.3 cents for each dollar paid to men of the same age and for women aged 45 to 54, the percentage was 75.7 cents for every dollar going to men. Looking at differences by occupation, the largest pay gap appears to be in health-related occupations, where women earned just 47 cents for every dollar earned by men.

Maybe you thought that pay inequity in Canada is a thing of the past, but there are still many examples of it today. Justin Trudeau may have appointed equal numbers of women and men to his cabinet “because it’s 2015,” but we have a long way to go before reaching equality in the general workforce.

All of this got me thinking about my own employment experiences. As a person of the female persuasion, a couple of questions still remain unanswered for me to this day:

(1) Why does physical strength rate more pay?

One thing that has always irritated me no end is that I’m not as strong physically as a lot of men. As a student, I worked as a labourer in a mining operation where workers were paid more based on the jobs they did. For example, if you operated a jackhammer, you were a paid a couple of dollars more per hour. My female co-worker and I were never asked to do this work so we raised the issue with our supervisor. We were then given the opportunity to try it, and just about got carried away by the machine. It was kind of funny at the time but, looking back on it now, here’s what I learned: A female who works hard and smart on a daily basis isn’t valued as highly as a male co-worker who does the occasional job that requires greater physical strength.

(2) Why does one occupation rate a higher pay scale than another?

In the mid-1990s, I worked for the federal government in a job which was classified as “ST”, which meant it was secretarial. It was also a job classification that was dominated by women. Little did I know that, back in 1984, my union had filed a human rights complaint, arguing that another female-dominated classification of federal employee, “CR”, was being paid less than male-dominated classifications for similar work.

If you’ve never worked for the federal government, you need to understand that the classification system determines everything about your job: your entry-level pay, when you get raises, how much vacation you get, etc. So this complaint was a pretty big deal. It would eventually prove to have wide-ranging consequences for me and 230,000 other Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) members, past and present.

After a four-year joint study with the union, the Human Rights Tribunal found that, indeed, the CR category was being discriminated against. But the ruling was never implemented. Discrimination continued. In 1990, PSAC filed another complaint on behalf of the CR classification plus five others, including my classification, ST.


Well, this continued back and forth until 1999, when the Tribunal delivered a final decision in favour of the union and then negotiated a compensation deal for employees retroactive to 1985.

At last — some action! This meant that the feds had to pay out a total of $3.2 billion in back wages and interest, of which I got a very small and unexpected part (I bought a hot tub with it, in case you were wondering).

I like to think that the reluctance on behalf of the feds to pay employees what they’re worth had more to do with the amount of money involved than the fact that most of us were female. But I still wonder…

So what is all this reminiscing in aid of?

March 8 is International Women’s Day. Here are some inspiring facts for you from the official International Women’s Day website, gleaned from numerous global studies of women in leadership:

  • Women are the largest emerging market in the world
  • More equality > higher GDP
  • More equality > more productivity
  • Better gender balance on boards > better share price and financial performance
  • More gender-balanced leadership > better all-around performance
  • More women political leaders > more prosperity

On March 8, take time to celebrate how far we’ve come — and think about how far we still need to go. I know I will.


Further reading:



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