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Wage gap exists for LGBTQ Canadians, and current research doesn’t tell the full story

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Canada has gained a global reputation as a promoter and defender of LGBTQ rights, but existing data and research shows gay and trans people face continued barriers to equal employment and pay in the workplace.

According to an analysis of data from the 2011 National Household Survey (the government survey that temporarily replaced the long-form census five years ago), gay men on average earn 5.5 per cent less than straight men, while lesbians earn about 6 per cent more than straight women. That second figure might be a surprise, as it might seem to fly in the face of the notion of an LGBTQ wage penalty.

But the data doesn’t tell the whole story, and in fact is rather limited, admit Sean Waite and Nicole Denier, two McGill University PhD candidates who conducted the analysis.

The government only began recording data on sexual orientation in 2006 after same-sex marriage was legalized, and just does so in the context of married and common-law couples. That means the data is omitting a huge cohort of unmarried people. Additionally, it reveals nothing of earnings or employment of transgendered people, who face obvious barriers in the workforce, but are not as yet, measured in government census data.

“The biggest limitation when studying sexual orientation/gender identity and labour market outcomes is the absence of population-based surveys that include questions on sexual orientation/gender identity and earnings,” says Waite.

So, it is hard to boil things down to accurate numbers, but people who work in labor issues say the mechanisms for discrimination in the workplace are impossible to dismiss.

“The challenges certainly are the same challenges as with other minority groups, in terms of systemic discrimination,” says Larry Rousseau, an executive vice-president with the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

In other words, LGBTQ people often run into barriers that non-LGBTQ people don’t even have to think about.

For instance, even in a workspace that on the surface may seem LGBTQ-friendly, prejudices can come into play for bosses deciding who will get the next promotion, particularly in jobs at high levels.

“You find that you’re not maybe getting those promotions that you expected and you’re not climbing up the ladder. There can be a glass ceiling. So that of course has an impact on earning power,” says Rousseau.

However, some of the gap can also be explained by lifestyle realities of both LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ people, but also between men and women in general.

For instance, one explanation for the higher income of lesbians versus straight women is the absence of the “motherhood penalty” that many women face, both due to the fact of putting a career on hold to have children, and that working mothers are often perceived by their bosses as less committed to their careers. Of course, more and more lesbian couples are having children, but not in the same proportion. Also, married gay men tend to work fewer hours than married straight men, perhaps because having two male salaries together provides some breathing room to work less, says the Waite and Denier analysis.

Other factors are at play, including the fact that married LGBTQ people tend to live in large cities, which would suggest a higher income, and tend to have more education, which would do the same. And in general, the lower proportion of parenthood among both married gay men and women would seem to be something that would give them an income boost.

Factoring all this out, Waite and Denier conclude that there remains an unexplained gap that could be due to discrimination.

“(The study) asks whether a gay person at the same life stage, who has the same education and works in the same occupation as a heterosexual person gets paid less than that same heterosexual person. And we find this to be the case,” says Denier.

“We also note that there is ample qualitative evidence demonstrating that sexual minorities face barriers and even overt discrimination in the labour market.”

Their analysis also showed that the pay gap was sharply reduced in the public sector workforce.

Sadly, any analysis of government statistics runs into a wall when it comes to trans people, leaving a hole in available data.

But other studies point to a much more difficult challenge for trans people.

A 2010 study by TransPulse, a research project on trans discrimination in Ontario, surveyed 433 trans people aged 16 and over who live in Ontario. It found that while 71 per cent of those surveyed had some post-secondary education, about half made less than $15,000 per year. As well, 18 per cent said they had been turned down for a job because they were transgendered, while another 32 per cent said they were unsure if that had happened.

“If you can imagine what it’s like for a gay man, you can imagine how much worse it is for trans folks, who are facing even more oppression or exclusion from the workforce,” says Jeremy Dias, community director at the Ottawa-based Canadian Centre for Gender & Sexual Diversity, which among its efforts helps train HR managers on fostering an LGBTQ-positive workspace.

In addition to typical anti-LGBTQ discrimination, trans people face additional hurdles, such as past work histories or transcripts that may be under a different name or gender. All of this presents opportunities for a resume to be shunted to the side, or a promotion to be given to someone else.

With the resumption of the mandatory long-form census and numerous claims that the Justin Trudeau-led government is making LGBTQ rights a priority, researchers may have hope that they can find more data to better measure LGBTQ labour and income disparities in the future.

“It’s just the next phase of the LGBTQ movement, which is why we need to start looking at these issues seriously,” says Dias.