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Catherine Swift
Catherine Swift

Catherine Swift

Pay equity is getting older, not better Add to ...

If we remember it at all, we likely recall pay equity as one of those transitory events in the women's movement: a symbol of emancipation akin to bra burning. Incinerating one's underwear in public took its proper place in the history books; pay equity, regrettably, did not.

Recall that the objective of pay equity legislation was affirmative action: to redress perceived gender discrimination in the compensation of female employees. Organizations were directed to identify male- and female-dominated jobs and determine their value using gender-neutral criteria - among them skills, effort, responsibility and working conditions.

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Even at the time the legislation passed, hardly anyone understood that "pay equity" addressed the comparison of completely dissimilar jobs - nurses versus electricians, for instance. The public thought governments were insisting on equal pay for equal work - women and men doing the same, or substantially the same, tasks - a straightforward concept that had been in law since the 1950s. In the late 1980s, the policy was described more accurately as "equal pay for work of equal value." But, as the debate wore on, some clever communications guru dubbed it "pay equity." The war of words was lost: Who could be against equity or fairness in pay?

For the public sector, pay equity became another mechanism through which unions could extract more from employers while ignoring the fact that male-dominated bargaining likely helped create the wage disparities in the first place. This gave rise to further bargaining on how pay equity would be accomplished, which meant finding ways to compare like jobs in different organizations.

So, here we are more than 20 years later, and despite massive government regulatory intervention, with millions of taxpayer dollars spent, not much has changed. Ontario's Equal Pay Coalition dusted off its letterhead for the 20th anniversary of pay equity to complain that, on average, women still don't earn as much as men. Of course, no one, likely including the coalition, really expected average pay for women to improve much. That's because a key cause of their lower average income - fewer hours worked (more women than men work part-time) - wasn't at all influenced by pay equity. Today we still have hundreds of bureaucrats warming seats in pay equity offices federally and in Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Quebec and PEI. As with all bureaucracies, they are self-perpetuating. Starting with complicated definitions and rules, they produced reams of interpretive materials and pursued compliance through cases and complaints. They ended up enriching the lawyers who swooped in to "help" organizations that were understandably befuddled. CFIB conducted a study in Ontario that found the cost of complying far outweighed any resulting pay adjustments for the women involved.

On the premise that the best defence is a good offence, we are seeing renewed signs of life from the bureaucracies. Quebec tinkered with its pay equity program earlier this year. Ontario has taken to random monitoring and auditing, indulging in such silliness as making firms provide data from as far back as 15 years ago.

One would think that this colossal failure of public policy and waste of resources would cause the whole effort to be scrapped, but these bureaucracies have, in fact, survived nonetheless.

After more than 20 years of slogging away at this nice-in-theory, unworkable-in-practice idea, it's time we acknowledged that pay equity is getting older, but not better. Small businesses have already spent far too much time and money grappling with the red tape that goes along with any pay equity scheme, not to mention paying higher taxes to cover the salary increases such policies have afforded government workers. Let's relegate it to history, along with the singed bras.

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