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Canada's gendered employment gap at 2.9 years for women with young kids: study

Darah Hansen
Jen Grey, center, works with her children on projects in Barre, Vt. Grey, 26, has been taking classes at the Community College of Vermont toward becoming a licensed practical nurse, but with three children of her own, she has not been able to take enough credit hours to stay in the good graces of the Reach Up program. With the changes the Democratic governor and his aides are pushing in that program, Grey fears being cut off from the $640 monthly check she gets from the state, forcing her and the children to move in with her fiance's mother. From left, Jackson, 7, Rico, 2, Grey, and Sloane, 6.

When it comes to paid employment, moms work less than dads. It’s a reality that should come as little surprise to anyone who is or knows an employed parent of young kids.

But what may surprise you is just how wide the employment gap between the genders actually is.

Kevin Milligan, associate professor of economics at the University of British Columbia, has published a novel report that finds mothers work, on average, 2.9 years fewer than fathers in the first 10 years of their children’s lives.

That’s a big number, and one that has stayed stubbornly stagnant since the 1990s, following two decades that saw huge gains for women – whether with children or child-free — in the workplace.

The latest research comes out of earlier work done by Milligan, in partnership with University of Toronto’s Michael Baker, on the economic impacts of parental leave, and the likelihood of moms returning to the office when the government-mandated time is up.

There’s now a strong trend in Canada toward more families where women earn more than their male partners, according to Milligan. Couples with female breadwinners have almost quadrupled, from an 8 per cent share in 1976 to over 31 per cent in 2010.

This most-recent study builds another layer onto what is already known about Canadian households, and finds that it is social attitudes, not public policy that may be our biggest barrier to addressing lingering gender inequities.

And, as Milligan put it in an interview with Yahoo Canada Finance, “Going that last distance might be quite hard, actually.”

Here are some of his key findings:

  • Parental leave is something people like to bring to the table, but there isn’t a lot of evidence that after the leave is over there is any effect on closing the gap. Milligan’s earlier research indicates that, while there is little change in the behaviour of men following a parental leave, a large share of women return to part-time work or take longer leaves to care for their children. 
  • Subsidized childcare has had a fairly small impact on narrowing the gap. According to Milligan, the subsidized childcare program in Quebec has reduced the employment gap by only six months. “So it does move it in the direction of closing it, but it’s not going to close it all the way,” he said. 

More likely, we’re going to have to stand up to some of the trickier questions we’ve been avoiding if the goal is really to reduce that gap to zero – those attitudes and opinions telling us, as a society, what the appropriate gender roles are inside and outside the household.

Why does it matter? Milligan gets asked that a lot.

“Many Canadians hold to a goal of gender equity. If you want to have a society and an economy that is gender neutral, having a smaller mother-father gap is a part of that,” he said.

There’s also an argument to be made for basic economic efficiency. It doesn’t make sense to assign people less productive roles based on gender. If you happen to be a woman who is not very good in the home and society forces you into that role, then that’s not an efficient match. On the other hand, some men might be naturally good housekeepers.
“By matching people to the job they do best, you end up with a more efficient economy,” he said.

The Conference Board of Canada recently handed the country a ‘C’ grade when it comes to the wage gap between genders. Decades of anti-discrimination legislation and equal rights provisions, women still earn, on average, 19 per cent less than male counterparts. The gender income gap ranges from a low of eight per cent in Norway to a high of 29 per cent in Japan, according to a 2010 study.