‘Part of the continuum’: Experts debate child care and pay transparency

By Shannon Waters July 31, 2021

At a time when child care is having something of a moment in Canadian political and policy circles, investments in the sector are being talked about in terms of economic development — akin to infrastructure — instead of being relegated to a women’s issue. But when it comes to other policies to address equity issues, experts and lawmakers are less settled on the best approach.

In its 2021 budget, the federal government announced $30 billion over five years to build a national affordable child care system. B.C. was the first province to sign a deal with Ottawa, securing $3.2 billion over five years to support the expansion of $10-a-day child care and halve average child care fees by the end of 2022.

Delivering universal, affordable child care is one of the NDP government’s foundational promises, which it has been working on since coming to power in 2017.

Investing in affordable child care “is the biggest social program we can do for equity for women in this province,” according to Finance Minister Selina Robinson.

Robinson made that comment on June 8 while being questioned about another equity policy the NDP has promised — pay transparency — by Liberal Gender Equity critic Stephanie Cadieux. The former children and family development minister has put forward multiple bills aimed at addressing B.C.’s gender pay gap, which is the largest in the country according to Statistics Canada.

Cadieux’s latest crack at pay gap-filling legislation is a bill that would require businesses to report annually on any pay disparity between men and women workers — in other words, pay transparency.

She accused Robinson of “completely missing the point” by pivoting to child care when asked about pay transparency.

“This isn’t about child care. It isn’t about minimum wage,” she said, nodding to another policy the NDP’s ministers like to tout when asked about equity issues. “It’s about pay equity.”

In its 2020 campaign platform, the NDP promised to take action to “address systemic
discrimination in the workplace and move closer to equal pay for equal work through new pay transparency legislation.” But, nearly one year into its second term, the government has yet to put forward the promised legislation.

Child care is the best bang for a government’s buck, experts say
The focus on child care was lauded by Dr. Kate Bezanson, an associate professor of sociology and the associate dean of social sciences at Brock University.

“Of all of the policy levers that exist … child care would be the biggest return on your investment in terms of the gender equality outcomes that it provides,” she told BC Today.

She pointed to Quebec as an example of the impact affordable child care can make.

“In Quebec, women’s labor market participation between 1997 and 2016 increased by 16 percentage points,” Bezanson said. “In the rest of Canada over the same period, it only increased by four percentage points.”

Quebec overhauled its parental leave policies at the same time it launched its child care push, Bezanson noted, likely realizing bigger benefits from the tandem policy push.

More women pulling in a paycheque means more government revenue in the form of income tax and additional spending. Affordable child care drives down the lifetime risk of poverty for women and their children and boosts women’s lifetime earnings.

“It is also the ramp to women’s entry into the labor market.” Bezanson said. “Having reliable, predictable, affordable, accessible, high-quality child care means that women can make very different decisions about their labor market engagement including moving from part time to full time.”

Continuing to further women’s equity requires a multi-pronged policy approach and Bezanson cautioned against pitting equity policies — such as child care and pay transparency — against each other.

“I think it would be a mistake to think about them as ‘one or the other’ or to compare them,” Bezanson said. “They’re part of the continuum when we’re thinking about gender equality … and they all ideally should be thought of as a continuum that should be worked on in policy terms across the spectrum.”

The pitfalls of pay transparency
Dr. Sarah Kaplan, director of the Institute for Gender and the Economy at the University of Toronto’s Rotman school of management, says B.C. is “doing the right thing when it comes to scale of impact” by focusing on child care ahead of policies that could address the pay gap.

“Absolutely — child care is the place to invest,” she told BC Today. “It is going to have a massive impact in a way that pay transparency or pay equity will never have.”

There is no pay equity law in B.C. but even provinces that have introduced pay equity legislation — which typically require employers to identify and correct gender discrimination in their pay scales — have not closed their own pay gaps. However, Kaplan notes that enforcement is often lacking and legislators sometimes have a poor grasp of the issue they are trying to address.

“I’ve been shocked at how many lawmakers have no idea what are the core drivers of the gender wage gap, that they think that pay transparency is going to be a fix,” she said.

Kaplan says B.C.’s above-average pay gap is likely because male-dominated sectors such as forestry, mining and technology, are driving the economy.

“The wage gap is primarily driven off of the fact that women don’t advance in leadership, and therefore the people who are in the highest paying jobs are men, and therefore when you calculate the difference in wages between men and women what you’re basically calculating is the fact that women are not in senior roles,” Kaplan told BC Today.

This is true even of sectors where the pay gap is usually minor. A 2020 analysis of public sector salaries by the Vancouver Sun found women in B.C.’s public sector were most likely to be at the bottom of the pay scale while men were “massively overrepresented” in the highest salary brackets.

So-called “sunshine laws” — a form of pay transparency where government bodies post the salaries of all employees above a certain threshold — have “led to a decrease in the wage gap for people working in the public sector, primarily by depressing men’s wages.”

While pay transparency is one of the policy tools governments can use to further women’s equity, Kaplan suggests expanded parental leave policies and an overhaul of the unemployment insurance system could prove more impactful.

Better yet, find a way to shift the norms that see women “siphoned off into lower paying sectors and lower-paying jobs and not able to advance because of gender norms,” a change Kaplan is well aware will take years if not decades.

“This is the work of a lifetime, it’s the work of generations,” she said of equity policy work. “We need to work on the gender norms that mean that we always think that women should be the one to have primary responsibility for children.”