6 steps for greater gender equality in Ontario

EXISTING GOVERNMENT PROGRAMS are not bold enough to make significant progress on labour force participation, wage equity, and gender equity.

The Panel on Economic Growth and Prosperity recommends committing to providing affordable child care, working with the private sector to reduce stereotypes around work tasks and behaviour, improving education pathways for women, examining best practices for quotas on boards and in leadership positions in the private sector, and working with the federal government on a pan-Canadian gender equity strategy.

1. Commit to affordable child care

Lack of affordable child care is possibly the biggest barrier for women participating in the labour market. High-quality child care programming needs regular, long-term funding to create spaces for children, pay staff decent wages, and ensure the centres meet the necessary regulations and requirements. In June 2017, Ontario released its renewed Early Years and Child Care Policy Framework that included some principles of universality including increasing funding for fee subsidies and making it more affordable for home daycares to become licensed. This plan will fail to increase labour market participation rates unless further action is taken to lower the costs for each child care space. A province-wide strategy is needed.

Ontario could look to Québec’s child care model which involves base funding for programs and set per-day fees. This is simpler than Ontario’s current medley of centre fees, family income, employment status, and the number and age of children that are used to determine subsidy rates in Ontario municipalities. To remedy some of the province’s challenges around the number of available spaces, Ontario should consider a policy in which no new school can be built in the province without the inclusion of child care facilities. In addition, any scheduled refurbishments to existing schools should also take into account spaces for daycare.

2. Introduce take-it-or-leave-it parental leave policy

Ontario’s policy for new parents is up to 35 or 37 weeks of unpaid time off work. During this period, parents collect Employment Insurance to cover expenses. However, women are more likely to take advantage of parental leave than men, reducing their labour force participation. Introducing a take-it-or-leave-it paid parental leave policy, whereby leave is reserved for each partner and cannot be transferred. Creating an environment where both genders take leave could help reduce the stigma associated with mothers who take a leave of absence. More than 70 countries offer paid paternity or shared leave for fathers. Five years after Québec introduced this policy, 76 percent of fathers were taking some amount of paternity leave, compared to around 26 percent in the rest of the country. In the Ontario Ministry of Labour’s Final Report of the Gender Wage Gap Strategy Steering Committee, it was recommended that the government establish Parental Shared Leave under the Employment Standards Act, and work with the federal government to coordinate Employment Insurance benefits with this leave.

3. Reduce stereotypes around work tasks and behaviour

To overcome subconscious biases in the workplace and ensure women are not disadvantaged by taking on low-status tasks, managers can ensure tasks are equally assigned based on status rather than asking for volunteers. Alternatively, managers can give out rewards for such tasks including making them relevant in performance reviews. This action may work to destigmatize such work over time and equalize the playing field within workplaces. Workplaces play a pivotal role in reducing systemic biases and discrimination that women face in these careers. One possible way to achieve this is by removing names from resumes when screening candidates.

4. Implement gender targets for corporate boards

Setting gender targets may be one way to promote equality in the workplace. Given Ontario’s poor representation of women in leadership roles, the province should work with the federal government to determine best practices for gender targets for private companies, looking to the experience of several European countries like Norway, Germany, and Belgium whose policies have been in place for several years.

5. Improve career path education for women

Changing the expectations of women in careers and stereotypes is crucial for achieving greater representation of women in STEM careers. These changes must begin in early education. Educational programs could consider mandatory requirements for programs like computer sciences as well as making curriculum more inclusive and relevant for women. Parents, teachers, and guidance counsellors play a role in encouraging a wide variety of career paths for young women. The government also has a role, as identified by the Gender Wage Gap Strategy Steering Committee, in developing an “action plan to support employment and skills training and help increase women’s participation in male-dominant skilled trades and men’s participation in women-dominant ones.”

6. Introduce a pan-Canadian gender equity strategy

Current government efforts to address the labour force participation of women have resulted in a patchwork of policies instead of a well-rounded, government-endorsed, and adequately funded solution. Experts have called for this strategic approach to begin from the federal government. They recommend setting a national framework by which all provincial and sub-national efforts abide.

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This post is an excerpt from a report published by the Institute for Competitiveness & Prosperity, Strength in numbers: Targeting labour force participation to improve prosperity in Ontario. This chapter and these recommendations were authored by Julia Hawthornthwaite, with edits and collaboration from the rest of the team. 

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