How Ontario is trying to tackle the wage gap — and how it could do more

OPINION: Some activists argue that the province’s new “Equal Pay for Equal Work” legislation won’t do enough to combat pay discrimination. They’ve got a point, writes Lauren McKeon
By Lauren McKeon - Published on May 10, 2018
Last month, Ontario became the first province in Canada to implement wage transparency legislation.



​For women, conversations about compensation can be particularly fraught. We’re less likely to negotiate and more likely to stay longer than men in jobs that are lower-paying. This is partly because we fear being seen as greedy or selfish — and that fear is not misplaced. Unlike men, women who demand raises are often viewed as bad team players who are only in it for the money. I often wonder, though, if we’re reluctant to negotiate because we don’t know our own worth. We assume that we’re less-than, and so automatically assign ourselves a lower value. But I mean that literally, too: perhaps we honestly don’t know how much less we are making. That, at least, may soon change.

Last month, Ontario became the first province in Canada to implement wage-transparency legislation, with the “Equal Pay for Equal Work” amendment to its Employment Standards Act. Starting next year, all publicly advertised job postings must include salary information. The legislation also prohibits employers from asking candidates about past compensation. Companies will no longer be able to punish employees who openly discuss or disclose their compensation, either. And starting in 2020, employers with more than 250 workers will have to publicly post wage gaps based on gender and other diversity markers. The next year, companies with more than 100 employees will be required to as well.

The transparency measures are meant to push forward the government’s strategy for women’s “economic empowerment” and will theoretically give women the tools to better advocate for themselves in the workplace. The move accepts that there are many reasons for the discrepancies, including that women are less likely to work in leadership positions and more likely to take time off work for caregiving. But it also acknowledges that, despite the ground women have gained, the pay gap remains — in large part because, in our day-to-day lives, we often remain ignorant. Or, as the author of a recent paper in the Harvard Journal of Legislation put it: “One reason for the remaining gap unaddressed by current initiatives is that wage discrimination often goes undetected by its victims.”

The wage gap has remained steady for years. In Canada, women, on average, earn just over 70 cents for every dollar a man does — despite the 1987 Pay Equity Act. That gap becomes chasm-wide when other diversity characteristics are factored in. In Ontario, for example, Indigenous women earn 43 per cent less than non-Indigenous men, and 25 per cent less than Indigenous men. Racialized women earn 42 per cent less than non-racialized men. (Both groups also earn less than white women, though the difference isn’t quite as stark.) The good news is that most Canadians seem to want wage transparency, precisely for the purpose of revealing such inequities. A Maclean’s and Insights West joint poll from earlier this year revealed that more than 70 per cent of Canadians support pay transparency.

Yet while many view the legislation as a final piece in the equal-pay puzzle, transparency is not a panacea — at least, argue groups such as the Ontario Equal Pay Coalition, not in this form. The OEPC is pushing the government to make eight amendments to the legislation, including one that would extend it to include companies with 10 or more employees. It has a point: statistics show that, as of June 2016, 98 per cent of companies in Canada were small businesses with fewer than 100 employees. As it stands, the legislation leaves out many women — including countless non-unionized and private-sector workers, who arguably need such leverage most. It’s also short on details: there are no strict timelines for companies to comply, nor are there any clearly outlined punishments for companies that fail to do so. Given all this, it’s no surprise that the coalition’s co-chair, Fay Faraday, told the media the legislation was too “timid.”

Still, it’s a step — an official and public acknowledgement that women do, in fact, deserve more. Considering the global wage gap isn’t expected to close for another century, we can never remind the world enough of this. Really, as a society, we are not so far removed from a time when women weren’t expected to make equal wages — because they were not, it was assumed, supporting a family. In some ways, we’re still stuck in this backward thinking: it’s women, for the most part, who give up their careers to stay home and save on child-care costs; it’s women whose ambitions are undervalued; it’s women who are told to stick to their “proper” roles. If we’re ever to get ahead, we must first have an equal economic playing field — and a world in which a dollar is a dollar for everyone.

Lauren McKeon is the digital editor of The Walrus. She's the author of F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism, published by Goose Lane Editions.

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