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Canada’s gender pay gap: Who is to blame?

It’s hard to believe pay equity is still a goal to be reached in a developed country such as Canada.

Women working full time earned about 83 per cent of what men did in 2011, according to Statistics Canada. When both part-time and full-time workers are tallied, that number drops to about 76 per cent, based on average weekly wages.

A recent World Economic Forum report suggests Canada can do better when it comes to gender equality in the workplace, especially compared to other economically advanced nations.

As calls continue for employers to ensure equal pay between women and men, experts say some women are holding themselves back in their careers and what they earn.

“Some of it is explained by women’s behaviour,” says Marina Adshade, an economics professor at the University of British Columbia and author of Dollars and Sex: How Economics Influences Sex and Love.

Women with plans to have kids may choose less challenging jobs with more flexibility, believing they can’t have both a successful career and family life.

“It’s the difference in the way (women and men) make choices,” Adshade says.

The gender pay gap is also said to be the result of women historically choosing lower-paying professions such as nursing, retail and childcare, dubbed the “pink ghetto.”

The National Household Survey released this spring says while women made up 48 per cent of the workforce in 2011, they were most likely to be employed in sales and service jobs (27 per cent), followed by business, finance and administration (24.6 per cent) then education, law and community and government services (16.8 per cent).

“Among the 20 most common occupations for women, women accounted for more than nine out of 10 workers in: administrative assistant; registered nurse and registered psychiatric nurse; early childhood educator and assistant; and receptionist,” the report states.

That compares to men who were most likely to be working in transport and the trades (25.5 per cent), sales and service jobs (18.7 per cent) and management gigs (14 per cent).

Women are also more likely to “make accommodations to balance paid and unpaid work,” according to a 2010 research paper by Julie Cool.

“This is the case despite the fact that women are catching up with men in labour force participation, and have caught up with men in educational attainment.”

While the gender wag gap closed significantly between 1976 and the early 1990s, “progress since that time has been limited,” the report states.

That is backed by a recent Catalyst study showing Canadian women who graduate with an MBA earn $8,167 less than men in their first jobs, start out at a lower job level, and are offered fewer career-accelerating work experiences and international postings.

“Canadian women MBA grads are being short-changed by gender and geography, signaling important long-term consequences for corporate Canada,” says the report, High-Potential Employees in the Pipeline: Maximizing the Talent Pool in Canadian Organizations.

It says these Canadian women are twice as likely as men to pursue public and non-profit sector jobs over corporate positions, and at higher rates than other parts of the world.

What’s more, female MBA grads took on fewer “high visibility projects and mission critical roles” and received fewer international assignments than men compared to their peers in places like Europe and Asia.

In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg says too many women are holding back in their careers, often to make way for a family down the road.

She encourages women to not “leave before you leave,” which means not stalling a career path believing it could get in the way of plans to have a family in the future.

It’s also a confidence issue for women, says Sandberg.

She says women are “pulling back when we should be leaning in,” hence the title of her book.

“Men tend to overestimate how they will perform and women tend to underestimate how they will perform,” says Sandberg in a blog post earlier this year.

She encourages women to not shy away from asking for equal pay despite stereotypes that it appears too aggressive and could turn off a potential employer.

“To close the gender wage gap, we need to have an open and honest conversation about the biases that suppress women’s pay,” Sandberg says. “The good news is that there are strategies that women can use (such as using communal language—“we” vs. “I”) that will increase the chances of negotiating successfully. People will still like them and want to work with them.”