Women still paying for Paul Martins policies

Lana Payne
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The women of Canada are still paying a deep financial price for the economic policies of Paul Martin.

Its been a dozen years since the former finance minister for the country gutted health, education and welfare spending, slashing billions from transfers to provinces.

But women, especially, are still feeling the impact where it hurts the most: in their pocketbooks.

Cuts to health and education budgets meant, among other things, less money for wages for the people working in those sectors. And it is predominantly women who work in these so-called caring professions.

Its not rocket science.

For years, people working in these fields were faced with wage freezes and an increase in non-standard work practices which, in the end, meant less income in the 1990s and cumulatively less income today.

And despite an influx of new money into health and education, women have still not caught up.

This has been borne out by a recent Statistics Canada study on whether higher education among young women has substantially reduced the gender gap in employment and earnings. The results are not comforting news for parents of girls.

Education, after all, is supposed to be the great equalizer. We tell our children to get an education, to get skills, because it will mean that they will succeed by this, we generally mean economically.

And while education certainly does make a difference to a persons life-time earning potential, for women it is still not making enough of a difference.

The Statistics Canada study noted that despite an increase in the number of university- and college-educated women, the earnings gap between women and men with university degrees has actually increased.

Overall, womens average income in 2005 in Canada was $26,800, or 64 per cent of that of men, who averaged $41,900.

Highly educated

Youd think the earnings gap would be decreasing, given that women are outnumbering men in term of university education; some 31.3 per cent of young women (aged 25-29) have a university degree, compared to 21.6 per cent of young men.

Instead, the earnings gap increased in the 1990s for university-educated women. The reason, the study concluded, was the public-spending cuts in the areas of health and education.

These spending cuts were felt by graduates in the female-dominated health and education fields. On the other hand, the high-tech boom helped boost the earnings of engineering and technology graduates, most of whom are men.

Some would argue the fault is with the choices young women are making and that the answer is for women to become engineers, or some other highly paid occupation, that happens to be dominated be men. Yes, we need more women in these non-traditional fields, but we know that this alone will not solve womens inequality. It is just one solution to a bigger problem.

The reality is society, in order to function, needs young women to become nurses, primary teachers, social workers, home-care workers, early childhood educators. We depend on these professions as much as we depend on the people who build our bridges, our houses and our cars.

Indeed, some would argue that in terms of real value to a functioning civil society, these caring professions are absolutely essential to ensuring that our economy works, that people can work and be productive so corporations can generate wealth. Yet the very skilled people in these jobs are not paid based on their real value to society.

And it is not just about choices.

It is no coincidence that the jobs women occupy are valued less, and paid less. And in many cases it has little to do with skills, education level or training.

It has little to do with the importance of the job to society or to people.

It does have a lot to do with leaving too much of these outcomes up to the marketplace.

But its also about gender discrimination. And if we look to that infamous budget of 1995, it was about making clear government decisions that would affect women differently and more adversely than they would affect men.

Women said this at the time. They told Paul Martin and the rest of the mostly male decision makers that their actions would hurt women disproportionately. It didnt matter. There were tough economic choices to be made and if that meant women paid a bigger price, then so be it.

Though this was not an excuse, the Harper Conservatives do not have even this argument to make. Canada is, after all, flush with cash.

For the Conservatives, decision-making that adversely affects womens equality and equity is not about tough economic choices, its all about ideology.

There have been many examples of this, starting with canceling $3.7 billion in child-care funds, and an attack on advocacy that can only be linked to a governments insecurity. It is also a matter of control, arrogance and contempt for activist democracy.

It is about changing how Canada does democracy a systematic approach to silencing a governments unofficial opposition, many of whom are women.

How long will women pay for the actions of this government?

Will our daughters be grown and well still be reading studies that analyze the persistent and worsening gender income gap?

Certainly, the governments decision not to build a child-care system will inevitably have an impact on womens ability to earn better incomes today and down the road.

But then, this government does not profess to care about womens incomes. Indeed, if the Harper Conservatives had their way, they would further entrench women as unpaid or poorly paid caregivers.

Maybe the best advice is for young women to become engineers or welders and let the 80 per cent of male Parliamentarians worry about the caring of our nation.


My apologies to the principal of St. Andrews elementary, Mrs. Anne-Marie Conway, whose name I got wrong in my column of two weeks ago. Mrs. Conway: the next time you see me, I shall be wearing a much-deserved red face.

Lana Payne is a former journalist who is active in the labour movement. Her column returns July 22. She can be reached by e-mail at


Organizations: Statistics Canada, Harper Conservatives

Geographic location: Canada

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