Presentation by Mary Cornish

September 28, 2015



On a daily basis, Ontario women are denied one of their most basic human rights –the right to non-discriminatory work and income. If women obtain paid work, they are often segregated in job ghettos with inferior conditions, denied access to higher paying male work and paid much less than men for their work. If the women are also disadvantaged because they are Aboriginal, racialized, have disabilities, are poor, single parents or immigrants, they face even greater economic discrimination in the labour market.

Forty five years after the 1970 Royal Commission on the Status of Women, Ontario women still on average earn 31.5% less than Ontario men – and that pay gap at best is stagnating and for many widening. Ontario men still earn substantially more than women in all levels of the earnings, occupational and industry measures.  And worse yet, the gender pay gap is often invisible and normalized when it needs to be constantly identified and closed.

Ontario’s gender pay gap harms women and their families for every day it exists. Permitting the status quo to continue – continues that harm and means that men are afforded economic advantages and pay which are routinely denied to women. Deep seated prejudices and stereotypes permit this harm to be ignored. Delay in closing the gender pay gap exposes women to greater pay inequality and increases the chances that they will also face economic discrimination not only during their employment years but also into their retirement.

While the causes of such inequalities are complex and intersecting, it is well recognized that occupational segregation, prejudice and undervaluation of the diversity of women’s work across the economic spectrum underpins Ontario’s gender pay hierarchy. Ontario women’s unequal economic conditions also sustain and interact with their unequal social conditions including their high exposure to sexual violence and harassment and their unequal shouldering of the burden of care and reproductive responsibilities.

These inequalities are well-documented and are part of a pattern which exists throughout the world as documented by the United Nations Women Report, “Progress of the World’s Women – 2015-2106- Transforming Economies, Realizing Rights.”

Premier Kathleen Wynne acting on the many years of requests by the Coalition, recognized these inequalities when in September, 2014 she issued the following mandates:

Minister of Labour to: Develop a Wage Gap Strategy

“Women make up an integral part of our economy and society, but on average still do not earn as much as men. You will work with the Minister Responsible for Women’s Issues and other ministers to develop a wage gap strategy that will close the gap between men and women in the context of the 21st century economy.”

Minister Responsible for Women’s Issues to: Promote Gender Equality and work with Ministries to Apply Gender Lens

“Your priority will be to promote gender equality in Ontario, reflecting the diversity of our communities by taking a comprehensive approach to addressing the social and economic conditions that create inequalities.”

“…support the Minister of Labour in the development of a wage gap strategy… and collaborat(e) with colleagues across government to ensure that a gender lens is brought to government strategies, policies and programs.”

It is not the purpose of this presentation to document the gender pay inequalities again.

Rather, this presentation seeks to bring the dialogue and the action planning back to first principles:

  • the human right of Ontario working women to be free from systemic sex discrimination in pay. A “right” is just that – it is something to be enforced. It is not a privilege – not an option – it must be secured.
  • International and Ontario human rights standards as discussed later in this presentation require that Ontario women in all their diversity be afforded economic equality in Ontario’s labour market.
  • a key measure for telling whether overall Ontario women have achieved that right is the measure showing that Ontario women earn on average the same as Ontario men each year – in other words a 0% gender pay gap.
  • The Equal Pay Coalition has called on Premier Wynne and the business community to set 2025 as the expiration date for gender pay inequality in this province – the date when Ontario’s gender pay gap reduces to 0%. This is also the year set by law when Ontario is to be free of barriers for persons with disabilities.
  • Ensuring this human rights goal is met requires mandatory gender-based analysis and planning at all levels of governments and in workplaces and communities across the province. This includes short and long term plans, goals, targets and monitoring of results.

Reorienting the dialogue to focus on the priority human rights mandate, with a set compliance date and a gender based planning/action/monitoring focus is essential if there is serious commitment to closing Ontario’s gender pay gap. Only then will Ontario women be able to finally exercise their full rights to live and work in a province:

  • where they are treated with equal dignity and respect
  • where their work is valued and recognized and paid appropriately
  • where the barriers they face to gaining access to better paying and secure or “decent” work are removed
  • where their unequal reproductive and care responsibilities are addressed where they no longer face sexual violence and harassment
  • where they don’t face greater economic penalties because they face multiple forms of discrimination, and
  • where they are freed from all the discriminatory dynamics which operate together to trap them in an unequal labour market which produces unequal outcomes for them.

And let’s be clear – despite the above Premier’s mandates, Ontario provincial and local governments, businesses and other organizations rely on women’s work and the gender pay gap staying where it is. They depend on having access to cheaper, undervalued women’s work and pay in order to get public services provided and private goods and services delivered.

Governments and businesses have resisted paying women’s work what it is worth and have used the uncertain economic times to either freeze in women’s pay inequality or to make matters worse for women by creating more precarious and low paid work. These are the dynamics we need to name and break out of.

So yes there are business and economic benefits to closing the gender pay gap – and it does help to have “a business case”. But governments and businesses must understand that they are not free to decide to act only when they are persuaded of the benefits – when someone has made a good “sales pitch” to them. Whether to secure the human right of women to a labour market free of discrimination is not negotiable. There is no option to take no action – to decide gender equality is not affordable or that it can wait till other priorities are dealt with.

Women need to be put at the head of the line in terms of priorities. Ontario needs to stop leaving women languishing in lower paid inferior jobs or without jobs at all because of their care responsibilities or the barriers they face in gaining decent work.

Ensuring Ontario women have pay equality with men is first and foremost a matter of human rights and redressing discrimination. Given the rising workforce participation and higher education rates for women, that goal is clearly achievable.

The Human Rights Mandate

Since the adoption of the founding principles of the International Labour Organization in 1919 and continuing to the present, world governments have created global and domestic gender equality standards to provide women with access to a discrimination-free labour market. In Ontario those standards include Ontario’s Pay Equity Act, Human Rights Code and Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Such pay equality standards are both a substantive human rights entitlement to sex equality in the labour market; and a systemic human rights remedy for past and ongoing pay discrimination.

Voluntary measures have not and will not work. There is no voluntary approach to enforcing the Criminal Code. And so there is no voluntary approach to enforcing women’s rights to a labour market free of discrimination particularly in the face of such widespread evidence of systemic gender inequalities.

This human rights frame has been a constant focus of the Equal Pay Coalition. Its 2008 Framework for Action clearly set this focus out.

Yet this human rights frame is constantly avoided and ignored in the discussion about closing the gender pay gap in Ontario.

Avoiding and ignoring the human rights frame permits governments, institutions and businesses to frame the discussion about the gender pay gap (if they even talk about it) within constraints which are not consistent with the right of women to be free from sex discrimination.

Ontario’s governments, businesses and organizations with equality obligations will be acting illegally and violating human rights laws if they contribute to or sustain labour market pay discrimination against women.

What are the Human Rights to Gender Pay Equality

International labour and human rights standards have moved from a traditional focus on the regulation of male-dominated “standard” workplaces, to taking a more systemic, inter-disciplinary and inter-institutional approach. This includes UN standards like the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and ILO Conventions 100 and 111 addressing equal pay for work of equal value and equal treatment in occupation and employment. It also includes international standards to protect vulnerable populations identified as at risk of experiencing complex forms of discrimination in which intersecting grounds are involved such as the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Persons (UNDRIP).

Securing gender justice for women in labour markets requires much more than enacting new labour laws, although that is part of the solution. Equality measures must also be mandated to address the social, political and economic factors at the root of women’s labour market discrimination.

International gender equality standards have imposed over the years increasingly specific directives for action to be taken by signatory states in order to achieve full equality in employment. In particular, the instruments use strong language requiring government and employers to ensure equality outcomes for women in practice and mandating regular reporting to monitor compliance. While the international gender equality mechanisms which Canada has ratified are far from being fully implemented, they do represent the new global standards which are to govern the actions of signatory state actors and where appropriate other social partners, such as trade unions and employers. These standards must inform the design of Ontario’s closing the gender pay gap plans.

The following is a distillation of the gender standards taken from the international standards which Canada has ratified. This list was prepared as part of a research report relied on by the 2004 Pay Equity Review Task Force report – Pay Equity: A Fundamental Human Right:

  1. Labour market equality for women and securing economic rights are priorities which warrant immediate attention and demand concerted action from all governments. Every available measure must be explored and the maximum available resources must be allocated towards securing these objectives. The achievement of equality for women in all aspects of life is a fundamental precondition for achieving a sustainable, just and developed society.
  2. Gender-based employment discrimination is systemic in nature. Traditional patterns of conduct and conceptions of what constitutes “valuable work” must be transformed in order to achieve greater workplace equality, including equal access to all benefits enjoyed by workers in the formal sector, and recognizing that women’s full participation in all aspects of the labour market is imperative.
  3. Securing gender justice requires a multi-faceted approach with measures requiring governments and civil society members including employers and trade unions to take proactive steps coordinated through national action plans to address gender equality on a systematic basis. A comprehensive national strategy must be developed which recognizes and addresses the specific features of inequality which are facing women in the many different communities within a country.
  4. Women’s right to equal pay for work of equal value is a fundamental labour standard and human right of the highest priority. Government has a pressing legal obligation to take positive steps to eradicate gender-based wage discrimination and to enact, modify and strengthen legislation in order to prevent all discrimination in employment practices including discrimination based on family status, non-standard work, and during periods of pregnancy or parental leave.
  5. Governments have an obligation to recognize the precarious position of female migrant workers and must implement measures to protect this group against involuntary confinement, forced labour, trafficking, and all other forms of labour and human rights abuses.
  6. Governments have a legal obligation to apply a gender perspective in the creation and implementation of the labour laws ensuring that women play an active role in this process, recognizing that the right to work and to define work conditions is fundamental to the right to development; recognizing that women experience work differently than men and their rights to development may be obstructed by unequal access to education, time poverty, and violence; and recognizing that the empowerment of women and full participation on the basis of equality are pressing international objectives.
  7. Governments have a legal obligation to ensure and guarantee equality outcomes.14 Government must enforce adherence to workplace equality laws by public authorities and institutions It has an added obligation to take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women by any person, organization or enterprise and must ensure that labour equality standards are achieved in both the public and private sector.
  8. As a follow up to the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action commitments, employers (including private sector employers) have an obligation to take proactive steps to implement equal pay for work of equal value, to eliminate gender segregation in the labour force, and to review, analyse and reformulate wage structures for female-dominated jobs with a view to raising their status and earnings.
  9. The achievement of equality is interconnected with the achievement and operation of other fundamental labour rights, including freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. The methods devised to achieve labour market gender equality must recognize that collective bargaining is an important mechanism for eliminating wage discrimination and for securing adequate work conditions.18 In the process of formulating legislation and taking steps to eradicate discrimination, and protect fundamental human rights, governments have a legal obligation to consult employers, trade unions, and civil society.
  10. Government have a legal obligation to create effective enforcement mechanisms for ensuring compliance with international and national labour law standards. All labour complainants must have direct access to a competent tribunal that can: adjudicate their rights; issue and enforce an effective remedy; and impose sanctions for non-compliance. Effective enforcement also requires access to legal aid for vulnerable persons seeking to enforce their rights.
  11. On-going monitoring, reporting and follow up within a defined time frame are necessary in order to ensure the practical implementation and realization of gender equality and full labour participation.

For details of the above standards, see the Equal Pay Coalition document: “Closing the Gender Pay Gap: Pay and Employment Equity International Standards.

Canada’s obligations under domestic equality jurisprudence and under international human rights instruments are mutually reinforcing and complementary. Both domestic equality jurisprudence and international human rights instruments adopt a results-based, outcome-directed approach to equality. Both are concerned with achieving substantive equality in practice.

Read more (PDF)