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110 days short of equality for working women

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April 19, 2016

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Women make up half of Ontario’s workforce. But whether it’s on the factory floor or in the boardroom, the disturbing reality is that women continue to earn less than men. Racialized women, young women, old women, single mothers, women who care for aging parents, religious women, and women with disabilities or addictions suffer an even greater wage gap.

The Ontario Equal Pay Coalition established April 19 as this year’s Equal Pay Day in Ontario. Equal Pay Day recognizes persistent discrimination against working women which results in a significant gender pay gap. The wages of female workers in full-time jobs are on average 29.4% lower than those of male workers. The day is significant because it marks how far into the new year a woman has to work to earn what a male worker earned in the previous year – 110 days.

Globally, and here in Ontario, society continues to devalue women’s contributions to the workforce. In March, UN Women issued a call to action to close the gender pay gap, and is working to develop an international coalition that will bring urgent progress on equal pay. The UN Secretary-General’s newly-formed High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment includes the gender wage gap as one of its key issues.

Ontario’s Pay Equity Act was enacted in 1987 – nearly 30 years ago – to redress systemic gender-based wage discrimination in workplaces. More recently, the Government of Ontario committed to creating a gender wage gap strategy, which will look at systemic approaches to solving this complex problem. But the gender wage gap persists and the problem will not be solved through government action alone.

Addressing this nuanced, multifaceted issue and intersectional discrimination requires ongoing effort and a comprehensive approach, and the involvement of government, employers, industry, services and yes, the human rights system.

As a first step, society needs to acknowledge that the gender wage gap is the result of continued systemic discrimination against women. Ontario’s Human Rights Code aims to create equitable societies where everyone has a right to equal treatment without discrimination or harassment based on 17 personal characteristics, or grounds – including sex. The gender wage gap is inconsistent with the goals and values that are the foundation of the Code and in that sense, pay equity is a fundamental human right.

The Code provides mechanisms to address individual gender wage discrimination concerns. Women can make complaints through the human rights system or the Pay Equity Commission. But in most cases, this redress is available only after the damage is done.

In 2016, women shouldn’t have to fight to be paid fairly for their work.

It takes real leadership to take concrete, long-term steps to eliminate the gender wage gap. A white paper released by the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) offers some compelling ideas on how to be this kind of leader. It includes recommendations for governments. And it goes a vital step further by reinforcing the key role employers must play, and the steps they need to take to ensure gender equity.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission will do its part to speak out about the gender wage gap and to frame it as a human rights issue. But we all share responsibility, from government halls to shop floors, for looking at our systems and the biases that perpetuate the disparity. Only when there is a collective will to support equality for women in all our workplaces will we change society so that a woman does not have to work 110 days longer than a man to earn the same wage.

Renu Mandhane, B.A., J.D., LL.B.
Chief Commissioner
Ontario Human Rights Commission