Mind the Pay Gap: How Legislation Could Help End Pay Discrimination in BC

We, Anastasia, Ashley, Megan and Zev, are graduate students at the School of Public Policy at SFU. We are taking over this week’s FThis! Blog to speak about our partnership with West Coast LEAF on the BC Priorities Project, to analyze a pressing and long-standing societal problem: the gender pay gap.

Below, we share our work and reflect on the knowledge and experience we gained while participating in this project.

What is the gender pay gap?

On average, women in BC earn 32.4% less than men annually. Our province has one of the highest gender pay gaps in Canada.

Despite the fact that the BC Human Rights Code prohibits pay discrimination on the basis of sex, gender identity, and gender expression, many women and gender-diverse people in BC earn less than cis men for comparable work. The pay gap is even worse for people who experience intersecting forms of marginalization. For example, university-educated Canadian-born racialized women earn, on average, 12% less per year than similarly educated white women.

BC is currently one of only four provinces without any form of pay equity legislation, and the BC Human Rights Code is not effectively addressing the issue. The onus is currently on individual workers to initiate a complaints process with the BC Human Rights Tribunal if they are experiencing pay discrimination. The process is lengthy and expensive, and the burden of proof is largely on the employee.

Girl looking at her phone
Photo Credit: Angelo Moleele on Unsplash

Why do we need to address the gender pay gap?

Addressing the gender pay gap is a matter of fundamental human rights. It is, in and of itself, a goal that we must strive toward given the equality protections set out in our Constitution and the fact that we are signatories to international agreements like the ILO Equal Remuneration Convention, which aims at establishing equal renumeration for  work of equal value performed by men and women.

In addition to women being paid less than men working in similar occupations, there are also whole sectors of the economy, often ones that are undervalued, that predominantly employ women. Although these sectors, like nursing, education, child care and eldercare, are essential to our society, they have been chronically underpaid, and their importance discounted, for decades.

“Without cleaners, nurses, hospital support workers, teachers and caregivers, our society wouldn’t be able to function. We need to acknowledge the contribution these workers make by paying them what they’re worth.”
 –Zev, SFU Master’s student 

These occupations are incredibly valuable and important, as demonstrated by the response to the current pandemic, but because they have historically been done by women, their true value is often not reflected in their wages.

The BC Human Rights Tribunal doesn’t have the power to address this systemic problem. For this reason, BC needs to pass proactive pay equity legislation, robustly designed, and with adequate oversight and enforcement mechanisms.

“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the undervaluation of essential services occupied by women in society. There’s no better time to act than now.”
– Ashley, SFU Master’s student

 About our project

Our project focused on the legislative tools that the BC government might consider to better address gender-based pay discrimination.

We researched examples of equal pay laws within Canada and abroad to see if they can effectively tackle the problem. There is a great variety of approaches, with Nordic countries, Australia, and Ontario offering examples of legislation that can effectively reduce the pay gap—if designed and enforced correctly.

We also had the opportunity to present our report findings in a meeting with West Coast LEAF and provincial government representatives.

“I was really excited to see the interest government decision-makers had on this topic. Our team gained invaluable insights into the work that creates policy in BC!”
– Anastasia, SFU Master’s student

How can pay equity legislation help address the gender pay gap?

Our project concluded that BC should consider implementing pay transparency and pay equity legislation, to both reveal and eliminate pay discrimination.

Doing so could not only help reduce the gender pay gap in BC, but also help to alleviate poverty. We found that pay discrimination is a major contributor to poverty in some households, especially those dependent on the earnings of women. Equal pay legislation could thus help lift these households out of poverty.

Pay transparency legislation helps reveal the hidden pay disparities within firms and gives employees, employers, the government, and the public the knowledge and data they need to identify pay discrimination and address pay gaps.

Pay equity legislation addresses the undervaluation of women-dominated occupations which have been historically marginalized, underpaid and disparaged as “women’s work.”

“We discovered the key to effective pay legislation comes down to the details of policy design. For example, ensuring that reporting requirements are clear and that there is a well-funded oversight body helps ensure legislation has an impact.”
– Megan, SFU Master’s student 

Pay transparency and pay equity legislation are essential policy tools to address pay discrimination in BC. However, other complementary policies, such as affordable and accessible child care, increases to the minimum wage, and parental leave are also vital to promoting gender equality.

In the coming years, BC should also monitor the success of a bold, expansive effort to fight pay discrimination in Iceland. The country recently made headlines for its equal pay certification law, which legally mandated firms to prove they are not discriminating in their pay practices.

There are no easy fixes and reducing the pay gap will require the continued efforts of government, employers, and the public. Advocacy groups like West Coast LEAF can help lead the way, and we hope our project can support this work and help inform policy makers looking to advance a legislative approach to ending pay discrimination in BC.

For more information about this project, click here to read the full Mind the Pay Gap report.

Questions? Feedback? blog[at]westcoastleaf.org 

Anastasia, Ashley, Megan and Zev are Master’s students at SFU’s School of Public Policy. They are graduating in Spring 2021.

Women writing something on paper
Photo Credit: Disabled And Here project