The Gender Wage Gap: Whatever the Rationalization, It’s Still Discrimination.
A few months ago I was flipping through an old family photo album when I came across a newspaper clipping marking my nana’s retirement in 1975. She had been a nurse for over 50 years, retiring finally at age 75. Yep, 75. She worked at her local hospital until she was 65, then feeling idle, took a job at a nursing home for another 10 years. Questions of stamina (or perhaps financial ability to retire) aside, what most interested me about the article was Nana’s response to the reporter’s query on whether she felt “today’s nurses” deserved a pay raise. “Yes, they work very hard and I think they deserve a raise,” she responded. The candid answer made me smile, particularly as it seemed a cheeky question (would the reporter ask a retiring male accountant the same thing?) Also, I had clearly mistaken my Nana’s quiet manner for acquiescence. Here was a woman who had entered her profession roughly five years after the end of the First World War. Her own mother had not worked outside the home, and took in boarders for ready household cash. Nana was part of a newly emerging middle class cohort of “women’s professions”. Her two sisters trained as school teachers. These were among the few options open to women. And her two brothers? Well, after military service in WWI, they picked up living wage jobs with the railroad—without the need for additional education or training.
My Nana spent her early, unmarried years in her chosen field honing her skills in housekeeping, furnace-stoking, laundry, and instrument sterilization, in addition to hands-on nursing care. In a time of rapid change and undefined work parameters, her job required an ever-expanding skill set. And when compared to some other jobs available to women, nursing paid a steady wage. But you can bet that the hospital janitor, if there was one, took more coin home in his pay packet. Nurses pay in 1921 ranged roughly from $75 to $90 a month. That’s $2.50 to $3 a week (I pulled that from 1920-21 copies of The Canadian Nurse, in case you are wondering).
Finding this bit of family history in a binder of snapshots made the issue of the gender wage gap more three dimensional—and multi-generational. Canadian women comprise roughly half of the workforce today. Women are often better educated than men, with according to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development stats, 55 per cent of Canadian women aged 25-64 having a degree, compared to 46 per cent of men the same age. Yet women in this country still earn 20 percent less than men (OECD figures). For women of colour, indigenous women, and disabled women, the gap is even larger. Also, the gap can vary according to province, with say, women in Alberta, where my Nana lived and worked, earning even less. It’s infuriating. And the rationalizations of why this is still our lot, even more so, especially since these rationalizations seem to change to suit the discrepancy. Take the argument that women earn less because they chose to study and work in lower-paying fields. Apart from the obvious fact that traditional “men’s work” has occupied a privileged wage space (why should daycare workers, payroll clerks, or social workers earn less than concrete finishers, truck drivers, or tool and die makers?) Studies have shown that wages consistently go up when men enter in numbers a traditionally female dominated profession (the reverse is true as well). Yes, more women work in lower-paid occupations, and more women work part-time (both voluntarily and through no other choice). But stats also show that 10- 15 per cent of the wage gap can only be explained as wage discrimination.
I thought that if I worked harder, became more educated, and proved myself a good and willing wage slave, my salary would rise.
Let me shine a light on that—to some employers, ethics and the law don’t matter (and let’s face it, the law is a fairly recent thing when it comes to pay equity). I know a little something of this type of discrimination. As a young woman in my 20s, I clearly wasn’t much of a critical thinker. If I was, I would have been more frustrated when I was struggling to pay for winter boots while my male colleagues in the same job and with the same education and work experience, were supporting partners or families, or, if single, taking vacations and living in somewhat nicer accommodations. Granted, none of us were rolling in the dough, but I was clearly making less than they were. I somehow assumed that my low pay was a personal failing. I thought that if I worked harder, became more educated, and proved myself a good and willing wage slave, my salary would rise. Once, years after leaving one position, I ran into a former colleague at a party. We joked about the onerous working conditions at our old place of employment. “Oh my God, and the pay was so bad,” he laughed. “I couldn’t afford my own apartment and had to live with my parents.” It may have been the alcohol that made him so free with his words. Perhaps he honestly thought we were “comrades” and therefore on equal terms with equal pay. He blurted out his wage. Turns out he made $5,000 more than me. We did the same job and had the same education. I had two years more experience and had moved to this city, with its high rent-to-income ratio, in order to take that job because it offered benefits. I wonder what went on in the heads of my former employers. What made them decide to pay the men I worked with more money than they paid me? It could not have gone unnoticed when doing the bi-weekly payroll or handing out the yearly T-4s. Yet at appraisal time, no one said “gosh Ellen, you are doing such a great job and it has come to our attention that we made an accounting mistake and paid you the wrong salary. Let us bring you retroactively up to the ‘male scale’.” It was such a measly wage to begin with, and yet they managed to chisel it down even further. To what end? To earn more profit off the back of the lowest paid? It appears the answer is yes. That wasn’t the last job where I earned less than my male colleagues for equal, or even greater work. Indeed, as time went on I gained more education and specialized training, and even more experience. But you want to know something about earning less for being just as good or better? It is demoralizing. Because no matter what you do, you can’t measure up in the eyes of the paymaster. And over time, you internalize that and begin to believe, at least on some level, that you aren’t worth it. That’s what discrimination does. It crushes the spirit and makes it that much harder to keep on keeping on—to keep on telling yourself that you are equal and you are worthy of being treated that way.
I’ve heard the gender wage gap described as a complex economic formula used to describe the discrepancy in wages between full time, year round working women and full time, year round working men, and not specifically the wages of women and men doing the exact same work in the exact same job (my personal anecdotal findings above.) It necessarily takes in women and men who work in different industries and occupations and is “influenced” by occupational segregation (or jobs held mostly by women or mostly by men) as well as wage differences between men and women doing the same types of jobs. So, there are many factors that add up to a wage gap, but even the federal government’s own Pay Equity Commission website reaffirms that 10 to 15 percent of the 20 percent gender wage gap is due to discrimination.
The gender wage gap has an odious impact on women and those they help support.
I want to be clear here, whether overt, or subtle and unconscious, discrimination hurts and it is unequivocally wrong. We can’t as a society continue to say we care about equality or poverty when we make weak rationalizations about strength, suitability, or “personal choice” for paying one half of the population less than the other half. We can’t smugly point to other countries and cultures and say “look at how they treat women” as an indictment of their lack of modernity when we say “nah ah, this higher wage, this carrot that makes life less precarious, this goes to the man because we value his work more” here at home. The gender wage gap has an odious impact on women and those they help support. According to the Canadian Women’s Foundation, “women’s lower earning power means they are at a high risk of falling into poverty if they have children and then become separated, divorced, or widowed.” Simple as that. The wage gap means more economic dependence on a higher wage earner (i.e. a man). And based on the gender wage gap in Ontario today, women on average will have to work an additional 14 years to earn the same pay a man earns by retirement age of 65. My Nana was lucky that she had nursing to fall back on when her husband died and she was left with three children to raise. She was lucky that it was a stable career that offered a living (if less than a man’s) wage. But still, she did work hard, very hard, until she was 75.