Women's participation in the salaried workforce has been steadily increasing in Canada since the 1960s. However, the facile image of a well-dressed career girl, complete with a perfect chignon, tailored dress suit and high heals, hides a reality that is diametrically different.
Reality is closer to what Toronto-based single mom Nicole Gorden, 39, has been living after the end of her decade-long abusive marriage. Gorden has two kids and works two part-time jobs to pay for the mounting bills. And despite holding down her job as a personal support worker for which she earns a minimum wage of nine dollars (US$1=CA$1.01) an hour, she takes classes at a community college for a diploma in social service to better her prospects. "I literally have to work around the clock to put bread on the table," says a very exhausted Gorden. "Getting a degree is important for me if I want to earn more and get out of the rut of part -time jobs," she adds.
While women like Gorden desperately want to give up their low-paying part-time jobs and move on, employers want to keep them where they are. This is because with part-time work they don't have to worry about paying perks like pension, Employment Insurance (EI) or paid vacation time.
Still, Gorden feels there are many women who aren't as fortunate as her. "If you're a woman at home raising children and you want to do something - where do you start?" she asks. The work-family tug is not new to women. Many serve as caregivers within their own households, doing the all-important task of raising children or looking after the sick. This seems to keep them away from the employment market.
This is what happened to Pallavi Bhatia, 30, who recently moved from Chicago, U.S., to Toronto and chose to stay at home to take care of her one-year-old son, Aadit. "Although I enjoy looking after my son, I constantly fear that the longer I stay away from the job market the harder it will be to get back," she says. Bhatia was working in the travel industry before she left her job because of a difficult pregnancy. Now, as a new immigrant in Canada, she feels she will be at a disadvantageous position when she starts looking for a job.
And Bhatia's apprehensions may not be unfounded. The present unemployment trends in Canada don't really paint a rosy picture for her. According to a 2007 study by Statistics Canada, a federal government statistics agency, immigrant women struggle the most in the labor market. Among women between the ages of 25 and 54 years, who have been in Canada for less than five years, the 2006 unemployment levels reached 13 per cent. Immigrant women between the ages of 15 and 24 years had even less success in the workforce, with unemployment rates at 19.9 per cent, double the rate of young Canadian-born women.
And this is where the news turns even more dismal. While women's participation rate in the labor market has doubled in the last few decades, it is also true that women account for 70 per cent of the part-time workforce. Worse, they still continue to fill-up low paying administrative jobs, with the more high-profile managerial positions continuing to elude them. In cases where women are in higher positions they have to live with a wage gap when compared to their male colleagues. (Source: Statistics Canada)
According to the Labour Force Survey of Statistics Canada, in 2006, 58.3 per cent of women in Canada aged above 15 years were employed. Of the two million employed women, 26 per cent worked less than 30 hours per week at their main job, as opposed to just 11 per cent of the employed men.
In 2005, Status of Women, a federal government agency promoting full participation of women in public life, conducted a study on women and employment. It found that men and women "inhabit two separate economies in Canada". This is because all their lives women earn less than men do: as new entrants in their 20s they get less income than men do. And as they gain experience and knowledge this income gap continues to widen. For instance, in 1997, the average earnings for all women were only 64 per cent of those of all employed men. Given that wages largely determine access to pensions, EI and other social benefits, the wage gap translates into a great cost for women. Even when they are able to get jobs they find themselves concentrated in a small range of lower-paying, traditionally female-dominated occupations: teaching, nursing and related health occupations, clerical or other administrative positions, and sales and service occupations.
Another industry that mainly employs women is the call centre sector. There are a lot of women in marketing, selling, technical support, customer service and reservations on phone jobs. Canada has approximately 13,400 call centers. According to Oxfam Canada, an international non-governmental organization, this work, which is mainly done by the women, is "precarious labor." This is because it is unstable, and workers lack a voice because they are not unionized and receive low pay in relation to the number of hours they put in. Also, not only are the women in this industry working under the constant supervision of the manger who monitors all the calls, they also face a lot of sexual harassment. Being subjected to irate and obscene callers is common. And all this is on top of long working hours. Most call centers are open 24 hours, seven days a week and the annual pay of the workers ranges from $15,000 to $25,000, with those in administrative positions being paid even less. Aside from the low monetary returns, part time jobs are not held in high esteem.
Ultimately, it is the employers who have the last laugh. With the women having no option but to join up, the employers get a reserve army of workers who accept low wages and dismal working conditions.
In a move to reverse this trend, the federal budget released on February 26 this year included a commitment for an Action Plan to advance women's equality. As part of the Plan, several programmes are expected to be initiated to better the economic and social position of women.