Glass Ceiling

More women are in the workforce than ever before. But Alberta’s wages and workplaces still heavily favour men.

By Shannon Phillips

Premier Ed Stelmach chose a new Cabinet In January, and among the fresh faces was 40-year-old Thomas Lukaszuk. The new Minister of Employment & Immigration promised economic stimulus for our recession-ravaged economy. He pledged to create highly skilled and sustainable jobs for all. And his first decision? To cut the wages of over 13,000 Alberta women.

 Lukaszuk froze the minimum wage at $8.80 instead of allowing it to continue to rise with the cost of living, which would have brought it to $8.92 this year. When wages lose ground to inflation, workers effectively receive a pay cut. Over two-thirds of Alberta’s 20,000 minimum-wage earners are women. More than half of them are over 25 years of age.

A few voices spoke out against the minister’s move—the usual chorus of “heartless” and “hypocritical.” MLA salaries, after all, get a cost-of-living increase every year. But few people really picked up on how the decision disproportionately hurts Alberta’s women. Unlike every other province in Canada, Alberta doesn’t have a ministry for the status of women, a women’s secretariat or even an advisory council to the minister—in short, any capacity for women to challenge Lukaszuk’s decision from within government.

What Alberta does have is the biggest pay gap in Canada: women who work full time in Alberta earn a median 63 per cent of what men earn, while the national average is 73 per cent. This isn’t due to high-paid male construction or oilsands workers skewing the statistics: Alberta’s female university graduates who work full time earned a median 67 per cent of what male university grads earned in 2007—the same ratio as in 1986. Alberta has the stingiest family leave policies, the lowest social assistance rates for female single parents and among the highest childcare fees (as well as the fewest number of regulated spots) in Canada. Alberta’s female single parents are more likely to live in poverty than other Canadians: half of our province’s women earn what qualify as “poverty wages.”

But despite the facts, an attitude persists in our society that women have “arrived,” that there’s no longer any need for women’s advocacy or—gasp—feminism. 

University of Alberta president Indira Samarasekera generated headlines in 2009 when she told the Edmonton Journal of her concern about the declining number of men enrolling in Canadian universities. “I’m going to become an advocate for young, white males,” she said. “No one will question me when I say we have a problem.” But if Samarasekera’s claim that “in 20 years, we won’t have any men as the heads of companies” had been challenged, readers might have learned that women went from 55 per cent of the Alberta undergraduate population in 1993 to 58 per cent in 2007, while the number of women in management jobs in Alberta dropped by one percentage point (from 35 per cent to 34 per cent) in the same 14-year period. As for the top jobs—CEOs—the reality is likewise sobering: a comprehensive study of women heading large Canadian companies shows that the number of female CEOs went from all of 4 per cent to 6 per cent in the past five years.

If one of Alberta’s highest-profile female academics isn’t too concerned about women’s actual economic position, it’s no wonder that local newspapers and coffee shops are abuzz with chatter about women taking over the world. Clearly, it’s time for a reality check.

The ability to work outside the home in a gratifying, successful professional position is one of the measures of economic equality. And on some measures, Alberta women are not faring too badly. Alberta two-income families are the highest earners in Canada. 

But simply having a job is not the whole picture, as any stressed-out, time-crunched, guilt-ridden professional woman will attest. Our workplaces and education system are built on the assumption that someone is usually at home. Women, working or not, still take on most of the child-rearing and housework. Meeting the competing demands of work and family is what leads many women to earn less than men, as they opt for part-time hours or take extra time away from the workforce.

Jackie Rice is a professor of computer science at the University of Lethbridge and a mother of three. Her biggest source of stress is how she’s viewed by colleagues when she leaves early or misses faculty meetings because of family duties.

“In workplace culture, there’s no allowance for your family growing up happy and healthy,” she says. “There’s an expectation that someone else takes care of that. There’s no taking into account our important commitments to our children.” 

Working in a non-traditional field for women, Rice feels pressure to keep up with research and publications—all the after-hours work that faculty are expected to do. That evening work, says Rice, is easier for people without family, without the extra tasks that usually fall to women—making lunches, scheduling appointments, doing laundry—the little things that add up to hours. “Most of my male counterparts get [an extra] 20 minutes, or two hours,” she says. “With three kids, I get—if I’m lucky—five-minute increments in the evenings.”

Professional women with children and housework are stressed-out, time-crunched and guilt-ridden.

 Rice says she’s amazed at the difference between her situation and that of previous generations, in that non-traditional fields are today far more accepting of women with families. But in highly competitive professions such as hers, she also sees younger women taking steps backward. “There’s a stigma against taking maternity leave, because women want to remain competitive,” she says. “There’s a stigma against men taking leave. And so the inflexibility leads to people making decisions they don’t want to make—going back to work immediately after having a baby, for example. A narrowing of choices is not really progress.”

Nicole Rosen, a professor of modern languages at the U of L, says the biggest challenge is finding flexibility in work arrangements. “If one little thing goes wrong, then the whole system breaks down, and it’s usually the woman’s job that suffers,” she says. “For example, if your kid is sick, then your whole day can fall down around you. There’s no wiggle room, no fallback.”

Rosen adds that the only men she knows who took parental leave work in the public sector. “Because men are often the higher-earning spouse, the only way they can take leave is if EI benefits are topped up, like for teachers or people who work for the federal government,” she says. “Union benefits allow for flexibility other people don’t have.”

Through the labour code, Alberta could legislate more flexibility in working arrangements. We are among the only provinces that don’t have any allowance for family leave to care for sick kids. Our combination of maternity and parental leave benefits is the bare minimum allowed under federal law; all provinces except Alberta, PEI and New Brunswick allow both parents leave upon the birth of a child, which can be taken consecutively—allowing a child the benefit of a parent at home for the first two years of its life.

Rosen says women’s equality is not about women replicating the way men dominated the workplace, but about thinking more broadly about workforce participation. “Work-sharing, four-day workweeks, telecommuting, all of those things,” she says. “Otherwise, the work, the kids—you just go around feeling guilty all the time. Everything needs just that little bit more of me.”

It’s been eight years since Kat Smith left her abusive husband, and she’s just now starting to get her feet under her. Since she left, she’s been on social assistance, fought a custody battle and finally secured supports for her youngest daughter, who has disabilities. Now she’s got a job and things are beginning to turn around. 

“I can remember my lowest point,” she says. “We had nothing. There was no way to survive on social assistance given the cost of living in Calgary. I couldn’t let the kids see me so desperate. I lived in fear of the eviction notice. But when we came to Lethbridge, with subsidized low-income housing, things were better immediately. It was just that one little thing that made it possible for me to start rebuilding my life.”

If the province had a more flexible system for female lone-parent families, Smith says it wouldn’t have taken her so long. “You’d be able to live in dignity with better social assistance,” she says. But she adds that people like her need to be able to work more while maintaining health and dental benefits and social assistance income. Those benefits are key—especially low-cost counselling, vital for women and children that have witnessed or been victims of abuse. 

“My child support counts against my social assistance,” explains Smith. “Which is fine. But as soon as I got a very modest part-time job—earning less than $100 a week—I made too much to get any of the supplemental benefits. Because my daughter has health issues, it was a powerful disincentive to work.”


For a lone parent with one child, Alberta provides only 65 per cent of the market basket measure (the amount it costs to live) for social assistance recipients, by far the lowest level of support in Canada. There’s a $7,444 per year gap between what it costs to live and what a single mother receives in community supports. It’s a recipe for debt and depression. 

At the height of the boom, Alberta women were doing quite well by some measures. Full-time earnings growth actually caught up to the growth in men’s wages; women’s median earnings grew 11 per cent between 1993 and 2007 (from $33,300 to $39,000), the same percentage point growth as for men (from $49,000 to $60,000). But the story was much different for single working mothers, who saw their median market income (what they earn from employment) drop during the boom. In 2001, female lone-parent median income was $36,000. By 2007, it was $34,800.

Single moms who work are more likely to live in poverty in Alberta (24 per cent) than in the rest of Canada (16 per cent). They also pay higher taxes than in BC and Ontario. Alberta also privatized, deregulated and downsized public services to a greater degree than other provinces, so more costs are borne by individuals. Albertans spend more on utilities, childcare, education and healthcare than other Canadians. 

Alberta is one of the only provinces without a provincial child benefit or a provincial strategy to combat poverty. Even Ontario, which lost a huge amount of its corporate tax base during the recession, continues to enhance their provincial child benefit, putting more money in the hands of low-income parents. 

In New Brunswick, the government introduced a variety of anti-poverty measures over the last two years, including an enhanced child benefit. The province launched a Wage Gap Action Plan to reduce the gulf between men’s and women’s earnings, arguing that government and the private sector have a responsibility to improve women’s wages for the sake of overall economic growth and productivity.

Monica Lambert Leong is not a hard-luck case. She grew up in a close-knit, supportive family, has a university degree and worked as a professional for over a decade before having a baby. Leong loves staying home and doesn’t really miss the workforce—but hasn’t gone back only because she can’t find quality childcare for her son (he has severe allergies). 

Unlike every other province, Alberta doesn’t have a ministry for the status of women or women’s secretariat.

“If I could find dependable childcare, I’d work part time in a heartbeat,” says Leong. She says she’s losing ground, missing professional development and advancement. “I love the idea of being at home and not missing out on these formative years. But I’d be more balanced if I worked part time. A part of me wants to be in the professional world.”

She’s not alone. Even while many skilled jobs went unfilled during the 2004–2008 boom, Alberta had the lowest number of women (with children aged 0–5) participating in the workforce in Canada. While some women with children chose to exempt themselves, some also just gave up looking for affordable, high-quality childcare. 

Leong says that flexible family policies would create better outcomes. “Government’s family policies don’t just affect low-income women,” she says. “Policies guide my decisions. If there were better family policies, I could be a more balanced person.”

In December 2008, UNICEF ranked 27 industrialized countries on their early learning and childcare policies and outcomes. Canada ranked last. And Alberta ranks last in Canada on a number of childcare indicators.

Alberta does not fund childcare centres directly, but instead gives low-income families subsidies and cuts cheques to for-profit centres to improve wages. This approach is easily discredited by the outcomes it achieves: Alberta’s total number of regulated childcare spaces has hardly grown since 1992, though the population and economy have grown exponentially. Only 17 per cent of children aged 0–5 in Alberta have access to a regulated childcare space; this rate is in the bottom three in Canada. At $700–$900 per child per month, fees paid by Alberta parents are among the highest in the country. By contrast, Quebec funds childcare centres directly. Fees are $7 per day (about $140 per month) and more spaces are available. Not coincidentally, Quebec women earn a median 81 per cent of what men earn, a much smaller pay gap than Alberta’s.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation & Development (OECD) reflects a global consensus about free markets, free trade and small governments. A growing body of OECD research shows the link between women’s economic equality and childcare. Comparing over 30 industrialized countries, the OECD shows the pay gap between women and men is smallest in countries that invest in early childhood education and daycare (France, the Nordic countries) and largest in places that don’t (Canada, USA, Japan). Improving women’s wages by providing quality and accessible childcare is cheaper in the long run for governments and employers alike, argues the OECD. Governments save on the social costs of poverty and employers retain skilled female workers. 

The OECD also argues that family-friendly policies have a direct impact upon economic growth, poverty reduction and greater labour force participation. These policies include “financial support for children, arrangements that allow working parents to take leave to care for children, and flexible workplace practices that allow a better reconciliation of work and care commitments.” Alberta does little of this—but the country as a whole is barely any better. Of the 30 countries examined by the OECD, Canada is 25th in government spending on family benefits, tied with Mexico and Turkey.

Yet another explanation for women’s inequality in Alberta lies in our provincial economy. Relative to other provinces, we spend far less of our economic pie on public services such as healthcare, education and social services. Everywhere in Canada, women form the majority of public sector employees, and this is also true in Alberta. But Alberta spends only 13 per cent of its GDP on public services, while the rest of Canada hovers around 20 per cent. Union jobs tend to pay higher wages for women, so with only a fifth of our provincial workforce unionized (compared to a national average closer to 30 per cent), women’s wages as a percentage of men’s end up lower in Alberta. This is why women’s wages stagnated in the 1990s as premier Ralph Klein gutted the public sector. While men’s median earnings grew by 11 per cent between 1993 and 1997, women’s dropped by 3 per cent, and didn’t recover to 1993 levels until 2003.

Alberta’s economy is also less diversified than ever. One-third of the Alberta economy is directly energy-related—10 per cent more than during the oilpatch crash in the mid-1980s. And the oilpatch is not kind to female workers. Women are barely a quarter of the total Canadian energy sector workforce, compared to almost half of Canada’s total labour force. Of women employed in the petroleum sector, 60 per cent are clustered in support, sales and service jobs, which tend to be lower paying.

Alberta has built its economy and social policies around a one-breadwinner model, but this doesn’t reflect the modern world. The stress women feel when they’re running to pick up sick kids from school, begging time off for kids’ doctors appointments, or feeling guilty about not “doing it all” reveals the gap between the one-breadwinner ideal and the pressure on families to have at least two incomes in order to keep up with the cost of living.

The one-breadwinner model is the subject of aggressive pining on the part of Alberta Conservatives. Just last year, then-Finance Minister Iris Evans argued that in order to raise children “properly,” one parent should be at home. While that view tends to pervade right-wing circles, conservatives rarely propose social policies that facilitate one parent taking more time out of the workforce, such as enhanced family leave, provincial child benefits, or writing job-sharing, flex-time and other changes into our labour laws.

Instead, conservatives rely on pure fantasy: the notion that every family in Alberta can get by on one income. Since the 1970s, men’s purchasing power throughout the industrialized world has essentially stagnated. Growth in family incomes has come almost entirely from women’s participation in the workforce. For most families, women’s participation is not a question of chasing “frills”—it’s about not falling behind the rising cost of daily life. In Alberta, 73 per cent of women with children under 5 years old participate in the workforce. That’s an awful lot of families that aren’t, according to Iris Evans, raising their children “properly.”

Part of the challenge for Alberta’s women is the lack of dialogue about their issues. Here, Alberta women have an advocacy problem. The deafening silence around women’s issues is not benign. When there’s little political conversation about the reality of women’s lives, there is a tacit acceptance of the status quo—even a growing sense that we’ve reached the end of progress, the end of women’s equality-seeking history. 

When we don’t talk about material realities—such as number of women living in poverty, the gap between women and men’s wages, or the risk of severe poverty in old age for women without male spouses—we acquiesce to Alberta’s peculiar type of economic model, where high-paying jobs are men’s jobs (short-term, dependent on non-renewable resources) and women’s work is concentrated either in the constantly besieged public sector or the non-unionized, lower-paid, non-pensioned, no-benefits, mostly part-time private sector. 


Alberta has the biggest pay gap in Canada: omen earn an average of 63 per cent of what men earn.

It might be fashionable to argue that women are now equal because people such as Sarah Palin and Danielle Smith dominate our TV screens, but the real story is that Alberta women are about as equal in 2010 as they were when Margaret Thatcher was the world’s most famous female politician. And it is, quite frankly, easier to point to out-of-context superficialities (number of women in the workforce or enrolled at universities) and declare the work of feminism a fait accompli

That’s because feminist action is difficult. There’s little funding for NGOs dedicated to women’s equality. While some political parties pay lip service to women’s committees, most leaders and backroom operators show little interest in actually presenting women’s interests in party platforms. It’s also difficult on a personal level: bring up the topic of feminism at your next dinner party, and watch your friends squirm.

But any Albertan committed to moving our society ever closer to equality needs to ask themselves if they want to live in an easy land of make-believe, where equality is measured in superficialities, or if they want equitable economic and social policies grounded in reality. If they want the latter, they need to start naming the problems, proposing real solutions, and—once again, like women and men have done for generations before ours—begin working together for change. 

Shannon Phillips is an independent journalist. She also works part time with low-income women at Womanspace Lethbridge.


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