Women, Work and the Economy

April 24, 2014
Denise Mullen

In Canada and British Columbia, males and females are more or less equally represented in the total population (50% to 49%), and the picture is broadly similar in the labour force (52% men and 48% women). However, females occupy a disproportionate percentage of part-time jobs, at 65%. At the same time, females now receive 60% of all post-secondary degrees, diplomas and certificates awarded by universities, colleges and technical institutes. Even so, on average women earn only ~68% of what male workers do,[1] while having a life expectancy of 83 years – four years more than males. What does this say about the lost opportunity for the Canadian and BC economies?

According to a 2012 International Monetary Fund paper,[2] taking full advantage of women’s potential could mean a 5% bump in US GDP, which would be comparable in Canada. Globally, the figure is significantly larger.[3] In aging societies like ours, where the median labour force age is rising, increased participation in the workforce by women can help to counteract the growth-slowing effects of demographic change. From a business perspective, making better use of women in the talent pool would lead to more growth opportunities and improve organizations’ competitiveness, a point emphasized by the World Economic Forum (WEF). To quote the WEF: “gender parity is not superfluous.”[4] In fact, many economists argue that human talent is the most important determinant of any jurisdiction’s competitiveness and long-term economic performance. To this point, in a recent study[5], albeit using US data, US GDP would have been 11% lower in 2012 without increasing numbers of women in the labour force compared to the late 1970’s. It is not a stretch to suggest that Canada would have experienced something very similar. Sadly, much of the progress that was made between the 1970s and 1990s has stagnated. Not enabling and taking full advantage of what half of the working-age population has to offer is a significant foregone opportunity.

Canada, according the WEF Index, is a bit of a laggard in maximizing the economic contributions of women, ranking 20th globally and 15th among high income countries. The good news is that Canada’s position has improved since 2008. But we still live in a culture where there are different expectations for women than for men – and where a glass ceiling does exist in many workplace settings.

So what can we do to take greater advantage of today’s increasingly well-educated women and make sure we don’t slight the economic potential of girls? One suggestion is to focus skills development strategies on targeting girls in non-traditional trades and technical occupations as early as grade six, when they begin to develop a sense of their capabilities and interests. Finding ways to keep girls involved and gaining confidence in mathematics and sciences should also be a priority. The 2014 OECD PISA[6] report shows that an equal number of Canadian 15 year old girls and boys intend to take math after high school, but for many girls performance anxiety is a deterrent to pursuing further studies in all of the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math). In OECD countries, females comprise only about 1 in 3 engineering graduates and fewer than 1 in 5 graduates in computer science. The likely reasons include stereotyping and culturally-determined expectations, rather than interest or innate ability. Girls simply take themselves out of the pool of future graduates (and employees) in a number of quantitative-based fields that offer pathways into attractive, well-paid employment. Any way you look at it, this is a waste of human and economic potential and a competitive disadvantage.

[3] US estimate

[4] World Economic Forum, Women Leaders and Gender Parity

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