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Why Canada ranks a dismal 30th in pay equity (and what you can do about it)

Because it’s 2015” was Prime Minister Trudeau’s catchy answer to a question on why half of the new Cabinet ministers would be female.

With laws in place that clearly say employers must pay equal salaries for equal work, some felt it was strange that the question was even asked.

They should look at the numbers. The World Economic Forum’s most recent Gender Gap Index saw Canada come in no better than 30th in the areas of economics, education, health and politics. Nicaragua, Namibia, Burundi, Mozambique, Bolivia and Rwanda, of all places, finished ahead of us. (Iceland topped the list.)

Canadian women are equal to or even ahead of men in education and healthy life expectancy in the study, but fall behind in the politicians, government officials and executives category.

Looking specifically at this country, Statistics Canada found that women still earn less than men — between 70 and 85 cents for every dollar, depending on how the data are measured. In Ontario, the Pay Equity Commission says that women earn 74 cents for every dollar.  

Glass Door, a recruitment website, recently surveyed more than 8,000 people and found that 23 per cent of Canadians don’t think that their companies pay equally for equal work. 

They would appear to be right.

Some people still think unfair pay is okay

“It is my experience that there is a gap between what employers pay men and what employers pay women,” says Alex C. Lucifero, an employment lawyer with Samfiru Tumarkin LLP. “That’s confirmed in all of the research and that’s my experience on a daily basis.”

The majority (87 per cent) of Canadians think that men and women should earn equal pay for equal work, there are still eight per cent of men and five per cent of women who answered “no” to that question.

Canadian women are less inclined than men to believe their companies pay them fairly (73 vs 81 per cent). The gap is wider in the U.S., with only 60 per cent of women believing wage parity exists, versus 78 per cent of men.

Code of Silence

Because it’s generally taboo to talk about salaries, employees’ perceptions of how their company’s payroll policies are often no more than a guess. 

Lucifero says that in his experience, salaries aren’t usually openly discussed; a lot of employers prefer it that way and reinforce that culture.

Transparency alone may be insufficient, says Paul Willetts, an employment lawyer at Vey Willetts LLP. “Enforcement could be required beyond transparency to ‘correct’ any apparent discrepancies in pay.”

“It is possible that it could also cause further workplace tension – not between genders, but instead between managerial and non-managerial staff, for example, as they suddenly have access to salary information,” says Willetts, adding that privacy is also a concern.

Scott Dobroski, a spokesperson for Glass Door, suggests employees should do their research about salaries both during the hiring process and while employed.

“No everyone knows what fair market value is. There’s a lack of awareness and education,” says Dobroski.

Are there any rules around disclosing your salary?

“It’s absolutely not illegal for coworkers to talk about their salaries, and an employer cannot fire you for cause for having discussed your salary,” says Jennifer Quito, an employment lawyer with Cavalluzzo Shilton McIntyre Cornish LLP.

However if an employee signs a contract saying that their pay is confidential, it would be a breach of contract to talk — but that’s an unusual circumstance, says Quito. Non-disclosure agreements for trade secrets are more common.

That being said, employers in Ontario can dismiss employees at any time for reason, assuming it’s not discriminatory, says Willetts. “So, for example, if you are publicly complaining about your salary at work, it is possible that you might be dismissed,” he says.

You may have little recourse in that situation. However a female employee in an equal role who was found to be making 20 per cent less would have grounds for a human rights application if she were fired for raising the issue.

What can I do if I’m earning less than should be?

Quito says there are three ways to fight unfair practices about salaries:

1. The Employment Standards Act of Ontario prohibits paying differently for work that is equal, so you could file a complaint there.

2. You can make a complaint to the Pay Equity Commission, but it’s hard to prove your case as an employee since you’re not privy to the info that human resources has concerning skill, effort, responsibility, working conditions, job description.

3. You can also consider beginning a claim under the human rights code at the Human Rights Tribunal, that  because that legislations also prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sex or gender.

How to raise a complaint

First do your homework about fair salaries for your profession, and start with the least confrontational approach. 

“Practically speaking, the best thing to do would be to raise the issue in a professional manner with the appropriate person within your organization,” says Willetts. “Provide your employer an opportunity to respond and correct the situation, or to provide its justification for the differential in pay.”

Quito agrees, saying “try to go within the internal mechanisms and escalate as necessary. There is a possibility it could be resolved at a much more informal level.” 

It can take two years to get a Pay Equity Tribunal decision, and even longer if it’s disputed. Quito says employees represented by a union are usually the only ones who can afford to pursue a claim this way.

“The Human Rights Tribunal is the more reasonable one for people to pursue,” says Quito. There’s a legal support centre, with free service on various parts of the claim. It can take upwards of eight months for a resolution.