Family Finance: The Next Level

There are now more working women than men in this country and many are the family's main breadwinner, but obstacles remain in their quest for career equality

WOMEN RULE THE WORKPLACE. Well, almost. The number of employed women outnumbered men in Canada last year for the first time. One reason: Education. More women than men graduate from university in Canada, and more earn graduate and law degrees. As a result, more women are becoming the primary breadwinners in their families -- a North American trend being dubbed the "rise of the wives" by the Pew Research Centre, a public opinion research organization in Washington, D.C.

But the road to economic empowerment is still ridden with potholes. It's been 47 years since feminist Betty Friedan penned The Feminine Mystique, which pushed the importance of education and a greater "life plan" for women beyond raising kids and cleaning the home. And while women are in the majority on the job, they still hit roadblocks that keep their positions and salaries below that of their male counterparts. Sure, women have seen advances in their pay packets. Statistics Canada reported last year that between 1997 and 2007, the proportion of women matching or exceeding their husbands' earnings climbed to 42% from 37%. But crunch the numbers differently, and the figures tell a much different story. In 2007, Canadian women brought home an average of $43,000; men earned $60,300. Put another way: women earned an average of 71.4% of men. That's better than the wage gaps in Switzerland, Korea and Germany, but behind countries such as Hungary, Poland and Luxembourg.

Part of the reason for the wage gap is that women make up 70% of part-time workers in this country, and therefore earn less, according to the Toronto-based executive research firm Rosenzweig & Co.'s fifth annual Report on Women at the Top Levels of Corporate Canada.Others such as Martha Fell, executive director of Women in Capital Markets, a Toronto-based non-profit organization addressing the advancement of women, argue women are simply not as good as men at negotiating salaries.

Those are certainly valid reasons behind the persistent difference between what women and men earn, but it doesn't explain why women are not fully represented in the corridors of power, which would go a long way to addressing the wage gap. Women have made some progress, but from motherhood and discrimination to networking styles and male-dominated cliques, they still face obstacles when climbing the corporate ladder.


When Tamara MacDonald was in high school she worked for her dad in the gas exploration business. Naturally, she wanted to follow in his footsteps, but he balked when she showed an interest in being an oil-and-gas land negotiator. "He told me: 'Tamara, it's a man's world and they will eat you alive. I know the struggles of the women in it and I don't want that for you.'" That did not deter MacDonald: "I thought, I'm going to go for it and I'm going to succeed and be great." As vice-president, land, at Calgary-based Crescent Point Energy, MacDonald has cracked one of the toughest areas for women: the resources sector. Women make up 47.1% of the industry's labour force, but their numbers diminish higher up the ladder: They fill 31% of senior management jobs, occupy 14% of corporate board seats and just 4.2% of chief executive are female. The numbers are even worse in the oil, gas and mining sector, which has the fewest number of women chief executives and directors, according to the research group Catalyst.

MacDonald has experienced firsthand the difficulties women face in the resources sector, where they're often hired in lesser paying administration roles. At the start of her career, she worked as a land administrator at an independent oil and gas company and her salary was $4,000 less then her male counterparts. That only changed after "crossing the street" to join another firm and tackle a new non-administrative challenge.

One barrier to women entering the highest levels of corporate power is networking. The problem with boards, for example, is that the decisions are "done too informally," says Karen Hughes, a professor of social structure and policy at the University of Alberta. Deals are cut on golf courses and in bars, where women aren't found as often as men.

She adds that directors often rely on personal networks and are attracted to people who are like them. Sue Riddell Rose, the chief executive of Perpetual Energy in Calgary, says it's still "an old boys network in the oil business," but has discovered that there is an advantage to being one of the few women at the top: People will remember you.

While there is a girls-in-gas network growing, Rose says it's more about camaraderie and support rather than a source of power contacts. Her recommendation: "Don't try to break into the network and be part of it, because that strategy doesn't work. It's not as effective as standing and being your own person with your own style -- even if that style is gender."


Women who take more than one year off to have children experience a persistent wage gap even after they return to the workforce, according to a new TD Economics report, Career Interrupted -- The Economic Impact of Motherhood. This wage difference is called the "motherhood gap." A woman who works continuously for six years will see her earnings rise, but a woman who takes a six-year break faces a persistent 3% penalty per year of absence. For a woman earning $60,000, that penalty adds up to $325,000 in lost earnings if she were to work for another 20 years after having kids.

One would expect that the longer a woman stays out of the market, the bigger the wage penalty. Not so, according to the report. Women who take shorter, but multiple maternity leaves see a bigger drop in salary than women who take one long extended maternity leave. Beata Caranci, TD's deputy chief economist and co-author of the report, believes the reason for the difference is that taking more than one maternity leave "can send a signal to your employer that you don't have a strong labour force attachment or that you aren't very ambitious." The arrival of babies means many women find themselves taking unexpected hairpin turns in their careers. Rosenzweig & Co. consultant Jay Rosenzweig says the lack of day care and inadequate social arrangements hurt women trying to juggle work and home pressures. According to a 2007 study by two Canadian professors, Linda Duxbury and Christopher Higgins, women are more likely than men to report high levels of role overload and caregiver strain. This is because women devote more hours per week than men to non-work activities such as childcare and elder care, and are more likely to have primary responsibility for unpaid labour such as domestic work in addition to any work outside the home.

Michelle Heaphy found out about the strain firsthand as she climbed her way up the ladder, first as a money market trader, then as director of corporate banking at Scotia Capital. She became the breadwinner of her household, making more money than her husband, but she was still "doing everything" at home. "I'm a pretty ambitious individual and wanted to have it all, but that hit me squarely in the face when I had a child," says Heaphy. "When I was trading and a mom, I would get up at four in the morning to work out because it was the only time I could do it... it was brutal. These days, my work/life balance is quite good."

Andrea Doucet, a sociology professor at Carleton University, and author of the upcoming book on breadwinner moms, Bread and Roses -- And the Kitchen Sink, says when both spouses work there is a lot of tension around housework. These tensions can lead to divorce, particularly in middle-and lower-income families that can't afford to hire help. More women are relying on husbands who are either stay-at-home dads or have less stressful jobs and do more of the household chores and child care. But although the number of female breadwinners is growing, Doucet says most women take the stance that when their children are young, they have to take a step back from their careers, or at the very least put them on cruise control.


Sexual harassment is definitely not taken lightly any more. Many large corporations have developed progressive policies and even a whiff of impropriety at the upper levels can cause executives to lose their jobs. But harassment still exists between co-workers, who use it as a tool to diminish and exclude female contemporaries. It can even come from clients, in which case it is even more difficult to address.

These days, however, sexual harassment is less often about extracting sexual favours and more of a "tool to exclude women to drive them out of the culture," says the University of Alberta's Hughes. It's a less blatant form of harassment, often done verbally, which means there isn't any reliable information about how persistent it is. Anecdotally, though, examples abound. For instance, Crescent Point's Tamara MacDonald says guys would tease her when she was negotiating land deals, saying that she'd get more if she would put out. Workplace bullies come in all shapes and sizes, but MacDonald hasn't let them drive her away from the oil-and-gas industry. She says there were a number of guys -- usually the older ones -- who have tried to bully her, and she's not afraid to admit that there were days when she "had to close the door and have one of those little-girl weeps." But she persevered and learned to "roll with the stupid sexist jokes and grow a tough skin."

The reality is that little is known about the extent of many forms of harassment because most women just suck it up and move on. "I've been in the environment so long, nothing affects you, and if it does then you'd never survive," says Heaphy at Scotia Capital. "You just don't hear it."


The economic crisis has frequently been referred to as the "man-cession," because women tend to survive better than men in uncertain job markets. The reason is the insular effects of male corporate culture, according to Boris Groysberg, an associate professor in the organizational behaviour unit at the Harvard Business School who has studied star performers in the financial field. Groysberg found that top female analysts continue to shine when they switch jobs, but males become average in the same scenario. Groysberg says successful women combat the institutional barriers inside their firms by building outside networks, which make them more portable.

Women also tend to do more due diligence when they are seeking new jobs. Men concentrate on career opportunities and salary, but a woman will focus on job opportunities that allow her to be around her family, her values and still do meaningful work, says Beatrix Dart, executive director of the Initiative for Women in Business at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. In short, women are more thoughtful at choosing future employers than men seem to be.

More good news? The growing number of female entrepreneurs. While leaving the corporate world to start a small business is sometimes called "opting out," Barbara Orser, a professor at the University of Ottawa's Telfer School of Management, argues that Canadian women are some of the "most entrepreneurial in the world." There are certainly enough of them. Four of every five Canadian small businesses are launched by women and 85% of those women are mothers, according to Frances Wright, chief executive and publisher of the MOMpreneur Networking Group Inc. in Calgary.

Take Jessica Jacobs, a former clothing designer who founded Calgary-based Little Soles Inc. in 2005. Like many entrepreneurial moms, Jacobs started her business when her kids were under five. She discovered a niche in the marketplace: making shoes with non-toxic materials for infants and toddlers who are known to suck on their toes. Despite a setback about two years ago when a container holding her entire fall line of shoes fell into the ocean and sunk, Little Soles is doing well these days with annual revenues of about $3 million.

But launching a business while having babies is certainly not the easiest endeavour, says Jacobs. "I've learned there's no such thing as balance," she says. "You learn to master the art of multitasking. There's been days when I've had to take a conference call while cooking dinner, breastfeeding and putting on the Backyardigans all at the same time."


Family Finance: The Next Level
Family Finance: The Next Level