Does poverty have a gender?

With tongue firmly in cheek, comedian Jeremy McLellan recently
commented on the “true” cause of the gender wage gap, saying:

naturally gravitate toward higher paying professions – like doctor, or engineer, or CEO…
whereas women naturally gravitate toward lower paying professions… like female doctor, or female engineer, or
female CEO.

Of course! If women have wage-gap or employment equity
woes, they have only themselves to blame. If they wanted to have greater economic
opportunities, they shouldn’t have been born female!

While Mr. McLellan was of course joking, the sad thing
is it’s a joke with more than a ring of truth to it. And this truth has been
widely recognized. Take for example Prime Minister Trudeau, who recently
endorsed the ONE campaign, which strives to eradicate extreme poverty in the
world. The position of ONE holds that poverty disproportionately impacts women.
According to ONE, poverty, when you get right down to it, is sexist. In
open letter
, Trudeau stated: “I wholeheartedly agree.
Poverty is sexist.”

This is not to suggest that poverty does not affect
men. But when one considers the metrics that determine poverty, such as
education and training, discrimination and access to financial services, women
do suffer at markedly higher rates than men. The ONE campaign is focused on the
inequality suffered by women on the international level, but it’s also
important to look specifically at the economic and employment mistreatment of
women in Canada.

Why it’s important to address the
wage-gap and employment equity

Does it
matter that poverty has a gender bias? The short answer is: yes – it impacts
all of us, no matter our gender. Beyond the basic need for a fair and just
world, gender-based income inequality can harm families and communities. Women
have been found to invest a disproportionately large amount of their incomes back
into their families. This investment in the family can have a crucial impact on
reducing generational poverty and may benefit communities over the long term
through improved health, productivity, and may serve to reduce crime.

women and unions have long been fighting for pay equity, governed by the Pay Equity Act[1]
which requires employers in Ontario to offer men and women equal pay for equal
work, and employment equity, governed by the Employment Equity Act, 1993[2],
which requires employers in Ontario to remove barriers for women, aboriginal
people, members of visible minorities, and people with disabilities. Women and
unions are largely responsible for these highly important pieces of

But despite
all of the hard-won gains over the years, women in Canada still experience
unjust obstacles to economic empowerment. The majority of Canadian women still
earn on average about 73 cents for every dollar men earn. The gap
remains when controlled for measures like occupations and hourly wages.

Though some
explain away the wage gap as the result of women and men making different
lifestyle choices, such as through a willingness or unwillingness to accept
overtime work or to require flexible hours, even if such factors are accepted
as impacting the wage gap, it doesn’t provide a full explanation. A large
portion of the wage gap is still unexplained. Research into the issue has found
that this unexplained gap may be linked to gender-based wage discrimination.
The Ontario Ministry of Labour
reports that “research and anecdotal information point to the continued
existence of systemic gender discrimination and biased societal attitudes
towards women, whether conscious or unconscious.” In terms of the gender wage
gap, discrimination is often reflected in the undervaluation of women’s work. A
truly disappointing situation in a country which prides itself on its human
rights record.

situation in Canada is so grave that, in its analysis regarding the implementation
of the provisions of the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,
the UN Human Rights Committee has
about, “the persisting inequalities between
women and men” in Canada.

Committee is particularly concerned with several issues in Canada, including:

The high level of the pay gap, which
particularly impacts low income and 
women from visible minorities;

the fact that the legislation relating to
equal pay differs at the federal, 

provincial and territorial levels and for the
public and private sectors, and does not exist in some provinces;

the underrepresentation of women in leadership
positions in the public and 
private sectors; and
the failure to enforce or ensure employment
equality in the private sector 
across the country. It further regrets that
the State party has not yet adopted regulations to implement the Public Sector Equitable Compensation Act.

Canada, quite simply, must
do better. The good news is that Canada can do better. There is a political
solution to many of the concerns noted by the UN. Prime Minister Trudeau, in
taking the semi-controversial step of appointing Canada’s first gender-balanced
cabinet “
because it’s 2015”, has already begun to address one of the underrepresentation of women
in leadership positions, but there is much more to be done.

The persistent wage and employment equity gap has the obvious effect of
lowering earning power of women and, therefore, puts women at an increased risk
of falling into poverty. This risk is only heightened if women have children
and separate or divorce their partners. Unless life insurance, or a survivor’s
benefit is in place, becoming widowed would also increase the risk of poverty.

Their reduced earning power leaves women in the unenviable position of
being less able to save for retirement. This explains why women over age 65 are
more likely than men of the same age to live in poverty. As reported
here, “the risk of falling into poverty means that some women are sometimes
forced to stay in abusive relationships, despite the danger.” Clearly, this is
an issue which must be acknowledged and addressed. To do this, however, we must
proceed from the understanding that poverty is indeed sexist. Only then will
we, as a nation, be able to begin to fix the problems.

Prime Minister Trudeau has taken some important first steps, but it
cannot all be left to our elected officials. All of us must be part of the
solution. We must all join female workers and unions in demanding that women
have wage and employment equity. Not because they are women, but because they
are human beings

[1] R.S.O.
1990, c. P.7
[2] 1993,
S.O. 1993, c. 35

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