Women strive for equality in the work place

By Salimah Kassamali

At the University of Calgary, female undergraduate and graduate enrolment exceeds male enrolment by at least 20 per cent. Why is it then that women in Canada earn significantly less than men? Could this be because of gender segregation of jobs, or because of a devaluation of women’s roles? Even with the same academic credentials and experience, women still get paid less than men in the same role. There also exists a huge under-representation of women in the political sphere. The underlying reasons for these differences are simple: discrimination still exists in the workplace.

The Office of Institutional Analysis at the U of C provided some surprising data: in the fall of 2011, there were 12,283 women enrolled in an undergraduate program and only 10,961 men. Graduate statistics also show that marginally more women are enrolled than men: 2,638 compared to 2,579. The average GPA of full-time female students in the fall of 2011 and winter of 2012 was 3.06 compared to 2.88 achieved by male students. While these ratios are mirrored in many other universities across Canada, the national income average of women still remains significantly lower than that of men — women earn 75 per cent of what men earn on a yearly basis, according to Statistics Canada in 2006.

Traditionally, women’s roles have been wives and mothers while men were the breadwinners and were expected to meet their family’s financial needs. Men’s work in the public sphere has always been economically valued while women’s work in the private sphere has been, for the most part, invisible, ignored and highly devalued. One Statistics Canada economist estimated that unpaid work accounts for one-third of the total GNP. Material well-being and power are closely connected to deference and respect, and the societal evaluation of work done in the home is not high. Activities of cooking, cleaning and childcare are not of high prestige. 

This devaluation of women’s roles continues as women assume certain positions in the workforce. Looking at U of C’s statistics, it is evident that women and men are still segregated in different kinds of disciplines. By ratio, there are more women pursuing a degree in education, kinesiology, nursing, social work and veterinary medicine. There are more men enrolled in business and engineering where fewer than a quarter of all students are women. 

As a patron of both fields — engineering and arts — I agree that this discrimination is not because engineering requires more complex skills and more education, but that a bias exists in the evaluation of skills. Technical knowledge is considered more valuable than knowledge about personal interactions and caregiving. Is this evaluation accurate, or is it simply a notion held because men have traditionally gone into technical fields and women assume to know more about caregiving and personal interactions? Jobs assumed by women offer less pay, less prestige, less authority and less security. Interestingly enough, paychecks drop once many women enter a field. The comparison between wages of tradespeople and sociologists could possibly mean that, as a society, we devalue women’s work. The notion that anyone can do a job that a woman can needs to be eradicated.

Forty per cent of women have non-standard work, including part-time work. These jobs usually provide less security, lower pay, fewer benefits such as pension plans and are marginal in terms of earnings and benefits. For most women, there is usually an invisible glass ceiling. Women only hold 7.2 per cent and men hold 92.8 per cent of top level corporate positions based on 2009 statistics. While some argue that this difference may be due to lower education and lower productivity of women in the workplace due to family responsibilities, this explanation is no longer relevant. The statistics from the U of C show that more women are enrolled in programs at both the undergraduate and graduate level and they have achieved higher grade levels than men. Men also have the option of taking paternity leave when becoming a parent. There no longer exists an excuse to pay women less than men.

The political sphere is an excellent example where women are underrepresented. Although in the mid-1970s women composed fewer than four per cent of Canada’s Members of Parliament, this has grown substantially. After the October 2008 federal election, 22 per cent of MPs and 33 per cent of senators were women. However, knowing that women represent at least half of Canada’s electorate, this number is still significantly low. Politics still remains an old boys’ club — and it’s these same men who are setting the standards of what we value as a society. It’s these underlying standards that need to change and will only do so with increased female involvement. 

As a student immersed in the microcosm of university, it is easy to assume that these gender discriminations don’t exist in Canada. Women assume that they will be treated equally to their male peers once they enter the workplace. The present job statistics provide a very different reality. Barriers still exist in the work force and political spheres are still highly patriarchal. It is often difficult for women to climb the corporate ladder even with high academic credentials and experience. Change must occur on an even deeper level in our society to achieve gender equality — change must occur at the structural level. Although much has improved over the last half-century, change must continue to occur.

Leave a comment