April 11 is Equal Pay Day in Ontario. As women and allies stand together to demand economic justice, it is important to know the statistics: Indigenous women face a gender pay gap of 57 percent. For women with disabilities, the gap is 46 percent; for immigrant women, 39 percent; for racialized women, 32 percent. Women’s economic empowerment depends on these gaps being closed.

The continued fight for pay equity has deep roots. I first did research on women’s labour force participation in 1970, as part of a campaign to get a women’s studies course approved at the University of Toronto — it would be one of the first such courses in any Canadian university. As I read through the June 2016 recommendations of Ontario’s Gender Wage Gap Strategy Steering Committee, I realized that the factors that contribute to women earning less have not changed much since I began my research nearly 50 years ago.

I was part of a research team at the Women’s Press, which published one of the first Canadian labour history books on women in 1974. My chapter in Women at Work: Ontario 1850-1930 examined women’s role in the First World War and especially their labour force participation: labour market conditions, labour legislation and attitudes toward women’s participation in the paid workforce as well as demographic patterns and general economic conditions.

Through my research, I observed that there were several explanations to account for the wage gap, such as market characteristics, the organization of workers, assumptions about women’s choices and attitudes, the characteristics of employees and women’s role in the family. I concluded that the gender wage gap will finally be reduced when there is a high degree of unionization, and where the overall wage gap is narrow – meaning the difference between the highest wage and the lowest wage in a workplace. The minimum wage must be a living wage, and it must also be combined with adequate and enforceable employment standards and pay equity legislation. Supportive measures such as affordable child care, parental leave and flex time as well as mentoring and skill transfer programs must also be in place.

The minimum wage must be a living wage, and it must also be combined with adequate and enforceable employment standards and pay equity legislation.

Ontario’s story goes like this. The end of the 19th century saw a dramatic increase in the urban population, fuelled by the development of a market economy in which production increasingly took place outside the home. With this development came the entry of primarily unmarried women into the paid workforce. The prevailing attitude restricted paid employment for married women.

From the onset of their participation in the paid labour force, women have worked in different occupations and different industries than men. Men’s wages were set at higher levels because they were supporting families; for the most part, women were regarded as not needing the same pay because they were seen as having no dependants, whether that was the case or not.

My 1980 master’s thesis was titled “Equal Pay: Criteria for Determining Wage Levels.” I noted that the first labour legislation for women did not address wages; rather, it was often characterized as “protective” legislation — protecting women from exploitation and protecting men from the competition of women’s labour. Protective legislation covered hours of work and length of workday as well as place of employment; for example, women could not work in mines, nor were they generally required to work between midnight and 6 a.m.

During the First World War government policy began to address minimum wages for women. In 1918 Manitoba and British Columbia passed minimum wage laws to protect women, and in the 1920s Quebec, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and Ontario followed. However, these policies and legislation applied mainly to industrial occupations and did not cover farm workers, domestic workers and pieceworkers in the garment industry, effectively excluding large numbers of workers, male and female.

The Second World War saw the entry of married women into the paid workforce and the establishment of government-run daycare centres to facilitate their participation. It was not until 1951 that the concept of “equal pay” for women found its way into legislation, and it took another 20 years for all women workers in Canada to be covered by equal pay laws. Nonetheless, the wage gap persisted: the legislation required that men and women be paid the same wage for the same or identical work, but men and women did not work in the same occupations or industries.

Women’s demands refocused from getting paid equally for the “same work” to equal pay for “substantially the same work” and then for work of “equal value,” a concept that took into account that men and women were doing different jobs. The challenge then became how to determine equal value, in a framework now called “pay equity.”

It was a major milestone when Ontario’s pay equity legislation was introduced in 1987. It required the preparation of workforce analyses to determine proportional values and to establish proxies where there were few or no men in the workplace. While the wage gap has been narrowed somewhat by this legislation, many workers do not benefit from the legislation, particularly if they are in small workplaces or if they are not unionized. Only with concerted and complete intervention in the labour market, whether by legislation, labour negotiations or corporate leadership, will the wage gap be eliminated. And so the quest and the struggle continue.

Looking ahead, there are many reasons to be hopeful. The Ontario Gender Wage Gap Strategy Steering Committee’s report included a strong recommendation for the province to invest in a province-wide licensed child care program, which would help alleviate the wage penalty that many women experience after they have children. The much anticipated report of Ontario’s Changing Workplaces Review could usher in changes that would overhaul our employment laws, making it easier for workers to unionize and create decent work for all.

We can also look internationally. Iceland recently revealed a bold proposal to make employers prove they offer equal pay by requiring pay plans, audits and certification of compliance. While that proposal offers a model, even such a strong initiative, in a country where women make up nearly half of the legislators, is limited because it applies only to workplaces with more than 25 employees.

What gives me the most hope is the renewed energy in the women’s movement, as witnessed by the recent International Women’s Day marches, the global women’s marches and the continued activism of the Ontario Equal Pay Coalition. Standing together, we can achieve pay equity.

Photo: Protesters gather in Nathan Phillips Square, in support of the Women’s March on Washington, in Toronto on Saturday, January 21, 2017. Protests are being held across Canada today in support of the Women’s March on Washington. Organizers say 30 events in all have been organized across Canada, including Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

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Ceta Ramkhalawansingh
Ceta Ramkhalawansingh received a YWCA Toronto Women of Distinction Award in 2017. She co-founded the Women’s Studies Program at the University of Toronto. She is the author of “Women during the Great War,” in Women at Work: Ontario 1850-1930 (Women’s Press, 1974), and the editor of (Un)Equal Pay: Canadian and International Perspectives (1979).

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