Economic equality an ongoing battle for women, prof says
Published Thursday, March 8, 2012 6:55AM EST
She's the literal portrait of a doting wife, daydreaming about her husband crouching on a battlefield as she feeds the young child sitting on her lap. "Remember We Must Feed Daddy, Too," reads the illustrated Canada Food Board poster from World War One.
Since then, Canadian women have made great strides in proving that they are capable of more than just domestic cheerleading. Comprising a little more than half the nation's population, women and girls are more likely than their male counterparts to live longer, earn a high-school diploma and enroll in post-secondary programs.
However, as law professor Kathy Lahey notes, progress appears to have slowed when it comes to financial issues such as pay equity and tax benefits.
"The reality is: even though there are nearly as many women in paid work as there are men these days, women really exist as second-class economic citizens," says Lahey, a Queen's University professor specializing in fiscal policy and gender studies.
She acknowledges the frankness of her words, particularly as the world marks the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day, but maintains it's important to alert women to existing economic inequality.
According to Lahey, Canada was regarded as an overall champion of gender fairness during the latter half of the 1990s.
"It's very clear that women have been going -- not just into a holding pattern -- but backwards since then," she says.
That impasse is perhaps most visible in the workforce where women still have lower average annual earnings than men, according to a 2011 Statistics Canada report.
For instance, women earned about 65 per cent of what men earned in 2008. The agency has chalked part of this gap up to a difference in hours worked; stating women are less likely to work full-time than men.
Lahey, however, views the divide as a symptom of a wider problem; particularly, Canada having "less effective" legislation prohibiting discrimination in paid work.
"It leaves the private sector free to deal with women employees in light of whatever stereotypes they may wish to apply," says Lahey.
What's more, the income gap between Canadian women and men with a university education has been stuck between 66 per cent and 68 per cent since the late 1990s, according to an equality report presented to the United Nations in 2010.
The takeaway here, suggests Lahey, is that women are still struggling to achieve pay equity despite more positive levels of educational attainment.
To alter an old Aretha Franklin tune: Sisters are trying to do it for themselves, and they certainly have in many areas. So, why aren't women on equal financial footing yet?
Lahey suggests that all levels of the Canadian government have failed to "seriously pursue policies of pay equity, employment equity and education equity."
She recalls how Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government shuttered 12 out of 16 Status of Women offices in 2006 and reallocated those finances from advocacy groups to organizations that provide front-line services.
Around the same time, the Status of Women Independent Policy Research Fund was cancelled, leaving many women's advocacy groups without support.
One report, a joint effort by the Canadian Labour Congress and women's groups, accuses the government of not having a complete "action plan" on gender equality.
"Canada has little institutional capacity to protect and advance women's rights," reads a line from the 2010 paper entitled "Reality Check."
Further criticism came in March 2011 when the UN Development Programme knocked Canada down a few pegs -- from 16 to 18 -- on its Gender Inequality Index, in view of a UNICEF report on maternal mortality rates.
Lahey also asserts that gender inequality exists in Canada's tax system. In particular, she takes umbrage with certain "joint" or "marital" provisions in the tax system.
As an example, she notes that even if both members of a low-income couple want to enter the paid workforce, only one member of the family is entitled to claim Canada's working income tax credit.
More often than not, that person is the partner with the highest income. Recalling earlier statistics on the income gap, Lahey says that in a heterosexual relationship the person who works is typically a man.
"It's the systematic treating of women in cohabiting, common-law partner or marriage situations as if their main economic role is to be supportive as a dependent of their husbands," she says.
This all amounts to what Lahey describes as the Canadian government's "failure to take its commitments to the female half of the population seriously."
It's a blistering assessment, but one that Lahey doesn't shy away from.
Decades after women first marched for voting rights, started arguing for control over their reproductive health and pushed to gain access to male-dominated areas such as business and politics, Lahey reminds Canadian women that the fight continues.