Women still owed wage parity

A Joint Venture with WXN Dec 15, 2011 – 4:48 PM ET

Women rule the workplace. Well, almost. The number of employed women outnumbered men in Canada in 2009 for the first time. One reason: Education. More women than men graduate from university in Canada. As a result, more women are becoming the primary breadwinners in their families.

But 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.

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.

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 edge to being one of the few women at the top: People will remember you.

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 the 2010 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 child care 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 Ms. 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 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, Ms. 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.

Posted in: Women in Power Tags: Andrea Doucet, Beata Caranci, Carleton University, Christopher Higgins, Jay Rosenzweig, Karen Hughes, Linda Duxbury, Martha Fell, Michelle Heaphy, Perpetual Energy, Rosenzweig & Co., Scotia Capital, Statistics Canada, Sue Riddell Rose, University of Alberta, wage parity, Women in Capital Markets